Can Mario Balotelli handle the heat on his Premier League return?
AUG 22, 2014 11:22a ET
Even Brendan Rodgers's worst enemy could not accuse the Liverpool coach of being frightened of a challenge. And so, for the man who tamed Luis Suarez, it seems almost natural that his next project should be the reintroduction of Mario Balotelli to English soccer.
Actually, it's not quite like that. Even the steely Rodgers, who guided the Merseyside club to within four points of the Barclays Premier League title last season, initially didn't want the hassle that comes with an admittedly very gifted and powerful striker. Certainly not at Milan's initial asking price of $47 million. Or the eye-watering sum quoted by the Italian club for a season's loan.
"I can categorically state" was how Rodgers began a denial of interest in the player three weeks ago. But Milan became increasingly desperate to sell and, as the price dropped, Liverpool developed an anxiety of their own about the striking options for the season now Suarez has gone to Barcelona. What if Daniel Sturridge, so prolific during the last campaign, picks up an injury?
Rodgers does, after all, have the UEFA Champions League as well as domestic competition to think about this time. He needs strength in depth all over the field. He pondered other ideas, other strikers accustomed to the highest levels of the game. But neither Radamel Falcao nor Edinson Cavani was gettable and Samuel Eto'o, though a free agent after his season at Chelsea, is 33 and hardly in keeping with Liverpool's policy of taking on players whose value should rise during their time at Anfield.
So face-to-face talks between chief executive Ian Ayre and Balotelli’s agent, Mino Raiola, began Thursday. The long-expected move was finalized on Monday after
both sides agreed to a three-year deal with the option of a fourth year after moving for a transfer fee of £16million.
There was no pressure to strike a deal in time for Balotelli to be registered for Monday's big game at the Etihad, for Sturridge will be ready to face both his old club and that of Balotelli, who won a title medal when with Manchester City in 2012, before helping Italy to reach the European Championship final that summer.
City, of course, became tired of Balotelli's tendency to attract undue attention both on and off the field. At Inter, his first major club, Jose Mourinho once described him as unmanageable and even Roberto Mancini, who gave him his chance at San Siro before taking him to Manchester City, eventually encountered terminal exasperation.
There were problems with Italy's Cesare Prandelli at both Euro 2012 and the recent World Cup, even though Balotelli had left a mark on the tournament by heading the opening-game winner against England.
So, while he leaves Milan with an excellent scoring record -- 26 in 43 games -- he remains such a gamble that the negotiations with Raiola reportedly involved behavioral clauses to protect the club's investment as well as the gap between what the agent believed his client should be paid and what Liverpool pay the now-proven Sturridge. It's not the kind of hard-headed business Liverpool have tended to do since the Fenway Group hired Rodgers.
Are Liverpool, then, in danger of departing from the very ethos that helped them to become the most improved team in the League -- yes, including restored champions City -- last time round?
Liverpool fans hope not. For the harnessing of Balotelli's talent to the professionalism demanded by Rodgers could produce something special, Balotelli is running out of time in which to change his willful ways. At Inter, he was an often-dazzling teenager who needed only to grow up. He's 24 now and and fans still cannot be sure of him.
His latest move will nonetheless provide a fascinating backcloth to the contest between the sides who so closely contested the title before Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard made his fatal slip in the home game with Chelsea and then Rodgers' men squandered a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace in May.
City and Chelsea each made statements as the Premier League resumed last weekend. City brushed aside a bright and committed Newcastle at St. James' Park while Chelsea dominated an equally enterprising Burnley at Turf Moor.
Most people think the title will go to one of these two clubs and, while Chelsea are tipped as the favorites, there is a real sense of purpose about Manuel Pellegrini's side. Liverpool need to give them a jolt. The Etihad will be buzzing and, for 90 minutes, even Super Mario will be forgotten.