Balotelli must deliver to repay Rodgers' faith
FC BASEL v LIVERPOOL
(Tomorrow, 2.40am, SingTel mio TV Ch 112)
When Brendan Rodgers signed Mario Balotelli, he admitted he was taking a risk. The Liverpool manager had no idea what he was letting himself in for.
Balotelli could write his boss' obituary.
The striker sidesteps coaches and mentors like he's easing his way around training cones and will always have an unwanted asterisk attached to his name.
He's the petulant one who defeated the Portuguese man of war, the boy who wouldn't grow up for Jose Mourinho.
Roberto Mancini treated him like a son, then turned his back on him, gruffly admitting that you can't choose your family. AC Milan dumped him in the bargain bin and waited for a desperate shopper.
Rodgers claimed he wasn't desperate. He was diligent. He researched Balotelli's colourful career and believed he had the insight to succeed where every other manager - and Balotelli's family at times - had failed.
Rodgers had cooled the tempestuous Luis Suarez. He could tame the beast that haunted Balotelli. The ego ran rampant.
Tomorrow morning (Singapore time)may prove if the Italian was a risk worth taking or a scathing indictment of a cockeyed transfer policy governed by hubris.
Rodgers' pre-season spending spree was questionable at best. After three Premier League games without victory, it's looking irresponsible.
No player defines the coaching paradox that is Rodgers quite like Balotelli.
With Daniel Sturridge ruled out of the Champions League Group B clash against FC Basel tomorrow morning, Liverpool's second striker should lead the line, which poses more question marks than The Riddler's luminous suit.
Balotelli cost £16 million ($33m) and has so far managed to hit the target in the penalty shootout against Middlesbrough and netted against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets.
Other than that, he has been a peripheral figure in all aspects of the modern game except, perhaps, where it really matters - in cyberspace.
On Twitter, he superimposed himself onto the four faces of The Beatles. He chanted "Liverpool" repeatedly in a funny voice. He mocked Manchester United's defeat by Leicester City and the Anfield faithful roared their approval like a chorus line of plastic nodding dogs.
He's overcompensating. He's seeking to curry favour with supporters after a series of distinctly average performances that have only further underlined the gaping crater left behind by Suarez and the lack of penalty-box proficiency caused by Sturridge's injury.
And still, Rodgers sticks with Balotelli, leaving Liverpool's Cinderella man looking like a pumpkin.
Rickie Lambert thought he was going to the ball when he signed for his boyhood club, but he's yet to be picked in the Premier League.
He has watched from the bench as his unsettled teammates displayed all the grace and finesse of the ugly sisters.
Suddenly, Ballotelli represents a wayward managerial campaign; an awkward symbol of what this listless Liverpool side are slowly becoming. He hasn't been awful, but he certainly hasn't come close to emulating the dynamic athleticism that permeated the side last season.
Basel could make or break both the man and the manager in the long term.
The Reds crave Champions League progress. Their legacy demands it. Rodgers' long-term future could depend on it.
That night in Istanbul in 2005 acted as an emollient, easing the sting of domestic failure.
Now it's Groundhog Day all over again. Domestic ambitions have been recalibrated as the Premier League returns to being a pipe dream and a top-four finish an achievement in itself.
As it was in 2005, Europe is Liverpool's likely route to glory, a long shot at silverware. If nothing else, dignity clings to Rodgers' men the longer they remain in the tournament.
An early exit makes the unthinkable the most unpalatable of realities. Liverpool's season could be over by Christmas. Rodgers will be left to count the cost of his poor accounting in pre-season.
His campaign doesn't entirely hinge on the result in Basel, but it's an opportune time for Balotelli to provide a turning point.
On Twitter, the enigmatic maverick has made many friends in Liverpool. On the pitch, however, he hasn't won them any games.
His playfulness panders to the gallery, but the novelty act tests partisan patience in the end.
His escapades hinted at his style at Inter Milan, Manchester City and AC Milan and established his popularity at all three clubs. But a lack of substance in the penalty box always ended the affairs.
Only Rodgers took a risk in showing him some love. He needs to reciprocate against Basel, by separating the quality striker from the caricature.
If Balotelli fails again at Liverpool, he might drag his manager down with him.
"If you’re Balotelli — this supposed superstar — you should be putting the ball in the back of the net. We’re going to give the guy credit for not sulking? What kind of nonsense is that? We didn’t afford anyone else that luxury."
- Former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol
"Balotelli is a big lump up front... He doesn’t have pace and he’s never going to score 20 goals a season."
- Former Reds defender Mark Lawrenson