James Pearce comment: How Liverpool FC's striker search led them to Mario Balotelli
Manchester City's Mario Balotelli is sent off by Referee Martin Atkinson after a challenge with Liverpool's Martin Skrtel (pic: Action Images / Carl Recine)
Just 18 days ago Brendan Rodgers was unequivocal when asked about the chances of Mario Balotelli heading for Anfield.
His praise for the AC Milan striker prior to the friendly clash between the clubs in North Carolina had been interpreted in some quarters as laying the groundwork for a potential transfer but the Liverpool FC boss was keen to set the record straight.
“I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool,” said Rodgers in the bowels of Miami’s Sun Life Stadium.
“In my last press conference I was asked a question about Mario Balotelli and I talked about what a talent he was and what an excellent player he was.
“The next day it was written as if we were signing him. I just gave my perception of him as a player. It shouldn’t be transmitted into us signing the player.”
Away from the microphones, senior Anfield figures were equally dismissive of speculation linking the Reds with the controversial Italy international.
The message was clear – why would Liverpool jeopardise the team ethic and dressing room spirit Rodgers has built over the past two years by signing someone with such a chequered past?
Yet the reality is that Balotelli today finds himself on the brink of completing a £16million move to Anfield. The truth really is stranger than fiction.
The question is why did Liverpool embark on the mother of all U-turns? And how did their exhaustive search for more firepower lead them to a player they had previously written off as damaged goods?
Finding a replacement for Luis Suarez has proved hugely problematic since the Uruguayan completed his £75million transfer to Barcelona last month.
Rodgers suffered a blow when Alexis Sanchez spurned Liverpool’s advances. The manager believed the Chilean attacker would have been the perfect fit but he informed Liverpool that his wife would only agree to leave Spain for England if they were based in London so he accepted Arsenal’s rival offer.
Next the focus turned to Queens Park Rangers’ Loic Remy with the Reds triggering his £8.5million release clause.
It looked like a smart piece of business for a proven top-flight goal scorer but the deal for the Frenchman collapsed on medical grounds.
Suddenly, Liverpool were back to square one. Next on their list was Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony with the Ivorian frontman keen to make the move to Anfield.
Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool and Mario Balotelli of AC Milan share a jokeMamadou Sakho of Liverpool and Mario Balotelli of AC Milan share a joke
Chief executive Ian Ayre held talks with his representatives but the £19million asking price – coupled with wage demands in excess of £100,000 per week – meant it went no further.
Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke also came under consideration before Liverpool made ambitious enquiries about the availability of stellar names such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema.
Monaco were open to the idea of loaning out Falcao and the Reds weren’t put off by talk of a £12millon loan fee but the Colombian informed them he was holding out for his dream move to Real Madrid.
Cavani also wasn’t keen and Benzema ended speculation about his future by penning a new contract at the Bernabeu.
With the September 1 deadline looming and Liverpool running out of options, they considered free agent Samuel Eto’o as a possible stop-gap signing in the knowledge that Belgium international frontman Divock Origi, a £10million purchase from Lille, will be arriving at Anfield next summer.
However, snapping up the veteran Cameroon striker was always going to be a last resort with Rodgers wanting a younger and more mobile frontman to compete with Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert for a first-team spot this term.
Fellow striker Fabio Borini is still at Anfield but with Liverpool having accepted Sunderland’s £14million bid he remains free to leave.
If he stays he will be fourth choice.
Sturridge’s record of 36 goals in 50 appearances for the Reds is outstanding but his injury record is such that the manager was desperate to secure a top class alternative and ease the burden on the England international.
With the clock ticking and despite understandable reservations about Balotelli’s previous behaviour, Rodgers has come around to the idea of signing the 24-year-old.
One key reason for that is finance. When you crunch the numbers the deal makes perfect business sense.
The attraction for the club’s owners is clear.
Balotelli is just 24, an established international and a proven Premier League goal scorer.
Earlier in the summer AC Milan were quoting clubs £25million for Balotelli but with the Serie A outfit increasingly keen to get him off the wage bill Liverpool became aware of the fact they could get him for just £16million.
Considering that Southampton recently paid £12million for Shane Long, the fee for Balotelli appears to be a steal.
If it doesn’t work out, his value won’t drop significantly over the next couple of years.
However, there is a reason why Balotelli was available at that price. He comes with baggage and plenty of it.
Make no mistake, a manager known for his bold and adventurous approach is on the brink of taking the biggest gamble of his Anfield reign.
Jose Mourinho once branded Balotelli “unmanageable” and others have tried and failed to tame the Palermo-born frontman.
At Inter Milan, Mourinho banished him for a lack of effort in training, while he received the wrath of the club’s fans after wearing an AC Milan shirt on a TV show.
Mario Balotelli (pic: Action Images / Ed Sykes)Mario Balotelli (pic: Action Images / Ed Sykes)
Controversy was never far away during his two-and-a-half year stay at Manchester City, who bought him for £24million from Inter in August 2010.
From lighting fireworks in his bathroom, to throwing darts as City trainees, fighting with team-mates on the training ground and breaking club curfews, the list of indiscretions was substantial.
His record of 30 goals in 80 appearances for City was unspectacular, although the eccentric frontman enjoyed cult hero status among the club’s fans after helping them clinch the FA Cup and their first Premier League title.
His only assist for City was the pass which set up Sergio Aguero’s dramatic last-gasp final-day winner against QPR.
In his two full seasons at the Etihad he picked up four red cards, including one at Anfield in November 2011 when he was senselessly booked twice after coming off the bench. He was also hit with a four-match retrospective ban for stamping on Spurs’ Scott Parker and fined heavily by City for his dismal disciplinary record.
There were numerous bust-ups with then boss Roberto Mancini, who grew tired of his antics and off-loaded him to Milan for £19million in January 2013.
Since returning to his homeland, he has netted an impressive tally of 30 goals in 54 games.
At 6ft3ins and blessed with pace and strength, Balotelli has the ability to torment defenders. But too often he plays with a scowl rather than a swagger.
“I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head,” Mancini said back in 2012.
“There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don’t speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist, but I speak with him because I don’t want him to lose his quality.
“If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault because he has everything.”
Now it’s Rodgers’ task to try to unlock Balotelli’s true potential. This is the talented coach who elevated Luis Suarez into the world class bracket, transformed the career of Daniel Sturridge and put Raheem Sterling on the road to stardom.
However, Balotelli represents the biggest test of the Northern Irishman’s famed man-management skills.
Rodgers has created an environment based on team work and total dedication.
A disruptive influence in the dressing room could have dire consequences.
Balotelli and his representatives have been left in no doubt about what will be expected from him at Anfield.
If Rodgers gets the reassurances he has demanded then the deal will be completed.
It’s a risk but one the Liverpool boss believes is worth taking.
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