If you’re a fan of football in any way, shape, or form, then you’ve no doubt heard that magic Mario Balotelli moved his way on over to Merseyside last week. The mercurial mad man originally of Manchester City has made his triumphant return to the EPL after a relatively underwhelming spell playing for my favorite club, AC Milan. I’m sad to see him go, but he just wasn’t doing it for the team. Mario now has one last chance to redeem himself before he becomes another talent wasted thanks to off-field behavior. I think he’s found exactly the right fit, and Brendan Rodgers is exactly the right man to whip the striker into shape. But it’s up to Balotelli whether or not he shapes up or ships out.
Don’t get me wrong. Mario’s first game in a red shirt this weekend wasn’t the dream start the Liverpool faithful were probably looking for. Balotelli missed a few simple chances that surely would have put him in the fans’ good graces. He certainly didn’t impact the game in the same way his Uruguayan predecessor might have.
I don’t think the important takeaway from this weekend is that he didn’t score any goals. I think it’s that on the whole, there’s something different about the way the striker is carrying himself. Sure, the Italian wasn’t spectacular in any way shape or form, but he dropped into good areas, looked to link play, and aside from a particularly embellished drop the the turf, after a hard challenge from Eric Dier, wasn’t his normal theatrical self. He walked off the field looking like he knew he could’ve done better, which is a first.
When Balotelli was at Manchester City, his supporters could simply blame the striker’s misadventures on his youth. Milan wasn’t exactly the optimal environment for the striker to grow either, considering the general character of the upper management. The zeitgeist at Anfield is different. Brendan Rodgers brings a very no-bullcrap approach to the game which emphasizes the rewards of hard work. He could be the one man stubborn enough to actually get the striker under control. He’s 24 now. There really aren’t a whole lot of excuses left in the book.
However, reports have still been surfacing that Mario is already having a tough time meshing with his new club. Reports surfaced last week that he was at odds with the Anfield staff over where he was going to live. Rodgers has already admitted that he’s had to “lay down the law” with the hot-headed signing. But on the whole, that was the calmest on-field performance I’ve seen from Mario in a long time. He didn’t look happy (he shouldn’t have been, he fluffed three great chances), but at the same time something seemed different.
I should say that judging whether or not the mercurial Italian has changed isn’t a matter of simply watching one game. Too many pundits and writers on the web will probably try to grab your attention with immediate evaluations that are absolutely certain. Football is a game of patience and the season is dozens of games long. He’s exciting to write about and to assess, but we won’t truly have an idea if this red shirt is the right fit for a month more at least.
On his day, Mario can play with anyone. We’ve seen him dismantle defenses, put teams on his back, and work in the occasional shirtless flex celi. No doubt he’s had his problems. There’s probably still more zany headlines to come. But if he can hold the craziness to a minimum and hone his game under Rodgers’ guidance, there’s every chance Liverpool have a new franchise player on their hands.
Illustration by Nick Billingsley