‘He did more in twenty minutes than Balotelli’s done all season’.
They were the words of Alan Shearer on Match of the Day last week when referring to the immediate impact that Daniel Sturridge had on his return after a testing five months for Liverpool. Make no mistake about it, Mario Balotelli has already played himself firmly out of favour with Brendan Rodgers, and Sturridge’s goal scoring return provided a stinging juxtaposition that emphasised just how disappointing the Italian has been on his return to the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Balotelli, Rodgers’ decision to play Raheem Sterling up front rather than any of his recognised strikers has been vindicated in light of Liverpool’s remarkable turn in form in the last couple of months. The Anfield outfit look a considerably more dangerous team when they play with the pace and intensity that characterised their game-winning style of play last season. Balotelli’s game has never been about pace, and he shouldn’t be ostracised just because he lacks that quality, but Rodgers will not be able to ignore how his team is more cohesive when the Italian does not start.
At the age of 24 Balotelli’s beginning to hit a crossroads in his career. That naive youthfulness that bought him more time when he initially under-performed, that helped explain his extravagant behaviour off the pitch, that artificially conveyed this heavyweight striker as a potential world-beater; is beginning to look misguided. Are we now at the point where we have to rule out Balotelli ever achieving his potential for greatness that burned so bright as a young star?
This time there’s no running away from his problems. There was almost a sigh of relief when he exited to AC Milan two years ago; a relief that away from the competitiveness of that Manchester City squad, and the microscopic analysis of the British media, he would develop into a truly exceptional player. And despite initial success, Milan would also deem it better to cash in on Balotelli than cope with the bucketload of controversy that the player invites.
The fight or flight question gained some clarity earlier this week though when his agent, Mino Raiola, was quoted in ESPN as saying:
‘This period with Liverpool is the biggest lesson he has had. He’s applying himself a lot now and his private life has calmed down too. It’s not worth asking if Liverpool are the right club for him any more — they are the only club for him.’
If you were to trust the words of agents outright you’d find yourselves frequently deceived, but that was a statement that did not necessarily need to be made. It’s telling on many fronts, indicative of a sense of closure and patience that hasn’t been seen before. And when you consider there have hardly been any off-pitch controversies from the Italian – barring the infamous Super-Mario instagram post – maybe he genuinely is ready to stay and prove himself.
The thing is, it’s difficult to imagine a player of Balotelli’s calibre and persona being content with a near-permanent residence on the periphery. He’ll get bored, frustrated or angry; and invariably end up causing another media storm.
Which means that Balotelli probably has two routes back into the spotlight. The first is via a run in Liverpool’s cup competitions – notably the Europa League – where Rodgers will need to rotate his squad.
Route two is slightly more boring and straightforward: to hope that this Liverpool squad folds again rendering Rodgers no choice but to start Balotelli. There isn’t really any other way forward – if the Liverpool manager won’t pick him when Sturridge is injured, he’s firmly out of his selection plans with the Englishman back at his best.
It’s genuinely difficult to call. Balotelli seems to actually want to prove himself, but his route to first team football couldn’t be more laden with obstacles. If anything is certain though, it’s that whatever path Balotelli takes, that flair for the unconventional will be as prominent as ever. Whether that will lead him back to the forefront of football or on a completely different pathway altogether remains to be seen.