Try as one might to defend Mario Balotelli, the Italian really doesn’t help himself sometimes. The man has always been unfairly targeted in the press due to his unique persona and has arguably been made the scapegoat for Liverpool‘s stuttering season, yet his decision to swap shirts with Real Madrid’s Pepe at half-time in Wednesday night’s 3-0 Champions League defeat was as utterly brainless as it was disrespectful.
Jose Mourinho once described Balotelli as ‘unmanageable’ during his time at Inter Milan, and after Roberto Mancini and Massamiliano Allegri’s attempts to tame his volatile personality at Manchester City and AC Milan ended in failure, many saw his £16m move to Liverpool over the summer as the Italy international’s last chance to prove his worth at a big club.
The common consensus was that if any manager had the ability to steer Balotelli onto the right path and help him fulfil his prodigious potential, it was Brendan Rodgers. The Liverpool boss is known for his man-management skills and has a proven track record of transforming raw talents into mature, driven and successful professionals – Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling have both benefitted immensely under Rodgers’ tutelage, as did Scott Sinclair at Swansea City.
One goal in ten games – with none coming in the Premier League – suggests that working his magic on Balotelli is proving to be difficult for Rodgers, and the Irishman’s frustrations will only have increased after the Italian’s act of shirt-swapping stupidity. It would be understandable if Balotelli was simply struggling to adapt to Rodgers’ high-tempo, high-pressing style of play – he would not be the first Liverpool player to have such problems, as the manager’s difficult first season at Anfield proved – yet the fact that the only thing on his mind after a gruelling first half which saw his side trail by three goals was to take the shirt of an opposition player makes one wonder whether his heart is truly in it.
In this context, the contrast between Balotelli and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo – who departed the pitch on Wednesday to applause from the home crowd – is apt. The former Manchester United player has been accused of being narcissistic, selfish and petulant, but what is without question is Ronaldo’s sheer professionalism and frightening determination to constantly improve as a player. It is these qualities that have made him the best player on the planet and one of the greatest of all time. The Portuguese superstar has had more shots on goal this season than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues, with an astonishing 15 league goals to show for it. Balotelli is second on this list, and hasn’t scored a single league goal.
Balotelli is a wonderfully talented footballer who is capable of being world-class on his day. Those days, however, are few and far between, and while Ronaldo has reaped the rewards of his immense work ethic and obsession with self-improvement, the Italian’s all too frequent disregard for the most basic standards of professionalism – he even failed to return to the bench after being substituted at half-time – means that he is in real danger of throwing away his potential, even at such a tender age.
So what exactly can Rodgers do to deal with Mario? The Liverpool boss unsurprisingly expressed his ire at Balotelli’s actions, informing the media in his post-match press conference that it is not something that he stands for and that the matter would be dealt with internally. But would that really have the desired effect? Reprimanding Balotelli by means of a fine or even a stern telling off runs the risk of antagonising the player, and Liverpool simply cannot afford to be worrying about a hostile individual potentially disrupting the team spirit, especially when confidence is already fragile within the squad. Such an approach has never worked on Balotelli, and a warning on his conduct – be it from Mourinho, Mancini or Allegri – has always fallen on deaf ears.
The striker clearly has a lot of growing up to do, and Rodgers may be beginning to feel that he is beyond salvation. The Liverpool boss will be desperate for Balotelli not to have a detrimental effect on the club – and by extension the security of his own job – and may look to swallow his pride, accept defeat and offload him in January.
Until then, however, he is stuck with Mario, and Rodgers could do worse than to drop him from the first team for a period of time. Not only would the industrious Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini relish the opportunity to stake their claim in the side – a strike partnership could even be an intriguing possibility while Sturridge is still injured – but omitting Balotelli would also make him realise that he is doing something wrong. This may sound simplistic and slightly patronising, but as it stands it is the only way to get through to a painfully immature footballer.
It might also be a good idea for Rodgers to sit down with Balotelli and the senior players of the squad so that they can have a constructive discussion on what it means to play for Liverpool and why hard work and professionalism will benefit both the team and the player himself in the long run. This way, the Italian shouldn’t feel ostracised and he may even appreciate being treated like an adult.
Such delicate and thorough consideration of how to deal with a player’s indiscretions would normally draw accusations of pampering or of being too soft, yet the player in question happens to be Mario Balotelli, the definitive footballing enigma.
Although Liverpool supporters are seemingly united in their wish to see Brendan Rodgers crack the code and understand the secrets behind the mercurial Italian, time is running out. In fact, Balotelli is on borrowed time already.