Forgotten man Balotelli finally makes his mark for Liverpool
LIVERPOOL, England --
At the final whistle, Mario Balotelli pulled off his black gloves, smouldered and turned for the locker room. There were no handshakes, no celebrations -- little acknowledgement of what had taken place. Had an observer been dropped into Anfield the scene around Balotelli would have been indiscernible from any other game here involving the Italian. He betrayed no real emotion.
He remains a tough man to analyze. If delivering one of Liverpool's most important goals of the season could not ignite a celebration, then what would?
That type of question may wait for another day. This was less about how Balotelli felt about things and more about the massive boost he had just delivered to his club's season.
It could very well prove to be Liverpool's most important night of the campaign. This was the game in which the Reds propelled themselves, finally, into the top-four picture. Southampton and Arsenal lie three points ahead and it's the Saints next up for Liverpool. Spurs, only one point clear now, have been as good as overhauled.
Balotelli had not scored a Premier League goal since November 2012 but conjured the winner here as a draw beckoned. While a draw in itself would not have been disastrous it would nonetheless have done little to bolster Liverpool's prospects of returning to Europe's elite. The game, like much of the club's season, was fizzling out.
Tottenham had been going well of late and was basking in the glory of a Harry Kane-inspired North London derby victory. While that young buck has kickstarted Spurs' campaign almost single-handedly, Liverpool had no such savior to shoulder the goal-scoring burden. Kane was well able to handle the game here too -- scoring a first equalizer and laying on a second for Mousa Dembele following Lazar Markovic and Steven Gerrard's strikes.
Liverpool, try as it might, could not get clear and stay there. The club's chief problems were acutely illustrated in its own derby, that drab Merseyside affair Saturday, and in the necessity to gradually rehabilitate star forward Daniel Sturridge. So soon after returning, it would be remiss to expect so much from the England man, but there had been little else up there, all season long. Even here, he was on hand with an assist and the gaining of a penalty.
Liverpool needed something. Would it be Rickie Lambert, the man against whom Brendan Rodgers has constantly measured Balotelli, or would it be the Italian himself? Remember that there had been nothing in Balotelli's Anfield career to suggest that he would be capable of delivering that moment of magic required to again pick the Spurs lock. However, he is a man with a sense of impeccable timing.
Rodgers has the right to feel proud of his alterations on the night, and not only Balotelli. Dejan Lovren came into the backline to permit Emre Can to rampage through the midfield. It was Adam Lallana, combining with the excellent Jordon Ibe on the right, who loaded the bullet into the chamber with only seven minutes on the clock. Bang. The ball went into the goal. Bang. The roof came off Anfield.
Rodgers, thereafter, turned to the Main Stand and picked someone out. He pointed, pumped his fist, told you so. One point proven. Three points won.
Since Manchester United defeated the Reds at Old Trafford in December, Liverpool has taken 21 of 27 points in the Premier League. This is now, perhaps, Liverpool's most difficult portion of the season. The Reds had to follow up the Merseyside derby with this clash against UEFA Champions League rivals Spurs.
They are on the FA Cup tightrope this weekend against Crystal Palace (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 12:30 p.m. ET) before facing Besiktas in the Europa League (live, Feb. 19, Thursday, FOX Sports 2, 3:05 p.m. ET). It will feel like a long time before they are back in league business and when they do it will be no mean task. They play Southampton next in the league, a team with Champions League ambitions of its own, before champion Manchester City comes calling in early March.
Last summer brought plenty of new faces for Liverpool, primarily signed to help the squad fight on a number of fronts. The first half of the season proved too much for some of the recently arrived players and they were out of the Champions League in the blink of an eye. Now, Markovic and Emre Can have settled and Rodgers has made this squad his own all over again. The one square peg in a round hole remained Balotelli.
It was only a few weeks ago after Liverpool played out a 0-0 FA Cup draw against Bolton Wanderers that Rodgers laid into Balotelli, bringing into question everything from his ability to his application. At that stage he could not even get into the Liverpool team and short odds would have been offered on a quick return to Serie A.
It seemed that Rodgers was attempting to deflect from Liverpool's shortcomings in that game by throwing Balotelli in front of the bus. There is no doubt that he looked like a different man Tuesday.
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