Almost seven years on from his £16m move to Anfield from AC Milan, a look back at Mario Balotelli’s brief stint on Merseyside produces suitably mixed emotions.
The early signs were positive enough. Then 24-year-old Balotelli joined Brendan Rodgers’ Reds on August 25, 2014 and within a week he’d debuted strongly in a 0-3 win at Tottenham Hotspur.
Within a month, he’d scored a cleverly-taken first goal for the club to open the scoring in the 2-1 Champions League home win over Ludogorets Razgrad.
He had also, however, put in largely underwhelming league displays in defeats to Aston Villa and West Ham United either side of that.
This, now, feels an accurate enough microcosmic representation of the Italian’s time as a Red and, unfortunately, considerable chunks of his career.
There were flashes of the brilliance that had already seen him play a big part in Manchester City’s 2011/12 title win and Italy’s run to the Euro 2012 final.
With such contributions behind him he was still seen as a potentially highly impactful player as he headed into what should have been his peak years.
But they were, ultimately, just flashes.
By November, his regular place in the team was beginning to disappear as the likes of Rickie Lambert started to push ahead of him.
He had struck the equaliser in a 2-1 League Cup fourth round victory over Swansea City in late October after coming off the bench, but that represented his most notable contribution since that Ludogorets goal.
There were narrow margins within this. He’d put in promising display in home Premier League draws against Everton and Hull City respectively over the previous few weeks and – on both occasions – come within inches of converting potentially match-winning chances.
These, perhaps, could be seen as falling into the ‘sliding doors’ category. Convert either of those, and Balotelli’s early stock – and confidence – would have likely risen considerably.
But, of course, he didn’t. And he ultimately wasn’t offering the team enough. The relative lack of energy and dynamism with which he led the line often rendered the Reds a somewhat ineffective, toothless-looking, outfit.
That feeling was only exacerbated by the fact that this was a team who had been so enthralling with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge leading the line in the previous campaign.
Suárez, of course, was now a Barcelona player while Sturridge was in the midst of an almost five-month long stint on the treatment table – having been injured in the September international break.
A Balotelli-Sturridge partnership had looked an eye-catching prospect in that August victory at Spurs. The then more dynamic Sturridge could perhaps have brought notably more out of the No.45 had they featured together regularly in those opening months.
As it turned out, the only other game they would start together would come in late February 2015 in the decisive Europa League Round of 16 second-leg defeat to Besiktas in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium.
It feels important to recognise the impact surrounding circumstances may have had on Balotelli’s relative lack of success.
As could be said for several of the summer signings of 2014, it felt like he suffered as a result of context. With Suárez’s departure and Sturridge’s subsequent injury troubles, this seemed like a team that was both in transition and seeking a coherent identity.
The new arrivals of that summer did not prove to be additions to an already cohesive unit – more individuals who had to try and find their place within a squad that was regularly switching between approaches and personnel.
2014/15’s context wasn’t kind, admittedly.
Balotelli suffered a hamstring injury on international duty in November 2014 to add to those early troubles.
He returned in mid-December but would have to wait until that Besiktas second leg for his next start.
It did look like the tables might be turning in February when he came off the bench and struck winners twice in the space of 10 days.
He poked home Adam Lallana’s cross to secure a thrilling 3-2 Anfield league victory over Spurs on February 10 and then converted the penalty which gave the Reds a 1-0 aggregate advantage in the Besiktas tie on February 19.
That second decider, though, came under somewhat questionable circumstances.
Jordan Henderson was the assigned penalty taker that night but Balotelli insisted on taking the spot-kick.
Henderson stepped aside – seemingly in order to avoid creating too much of a scene – but it was still clear enough what had happened. Balotelli did, at least, score.
The injured Steven Gerrard – who was working as a pundit for ITV that night – was understandably critical of the Italian’s actions at the time.
The former skipper’s 2015 autobiography also offered an insight into how Balotelli didn’t always help himself – although it also highlighted how he did at least show a willingness to adapt.
In the book, Gerrard referenced an early training session.
“We were doing work on our defensive set pieces and Balotelli said to Brendan: ‘I don’t mark on corners. I can’t.’ I nearly fell into the goalpost. I was thinking, ‘What are you? Six foot three, and one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen on a football pitch? And you can’t mark on a corner?’
“Brendan was very firm. He said to Balotelli: ‘Well, you can now – and if you can’t then you’re going to learn.’ That was the first conflict between Brendan and Balotelli, on day one. But the manager stood up to Mario really well. From that point, Balotelli started marking on corners. And he even went on to stop a few important goals over the coming months.”
There is also another of those potentially ‘sliding doors’ moments mentioned. Balotelli took down and converted a typically raking Gerrard pass in the latter stages of the 2-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa that season but he was incorrectly denied that equaliser by an offside flag.
Such a big goal at Wembley – especially if it had led to Liverpool going through – could have notably shifted perceptions of his time at the club, and perhaps even offered him more of a future. But, of course, it wasn’t to be.
It is evident within the book that there was a level of affection between Gerrard and Balotelli – the former No8 references, for instance, the open letter that the Italian wrote to him as the skipper’s Anfield exit approached in the spring of 2015.
Several accounts from those who have known and played with the Italian over the years speak of him being a highly likeable guy.
It does feel like it’s been all too easy to present him as a somewhat villainous figure. Plenty of his actions – on and off the pitch – haven’t helped his case in that regard, admittedly. Yet it still feels like a slightly more balanced approach to assessing Balotelli could be taken.
He would only have that one season of playing time at Anfield. 28 appearances and four goals were the sum total. A set of numbers that are undeniably underwhelming.
A mitigating factor, though, is that this was within a season that was largely underwhelming and disjointed – even if it did bring considerable progression for the likes of Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho.
Balotelli returned to AC Milan on loan in late August 2015 and just over a year later, with Jürgen Klopp now in charge, he joined French side Nice on a free transfer – where he struck 33 times in 51 Ligue 1 appearances across two seasons.
He has since gone on to represent fellow French outfit Olympique Marseille, Italian clubs Brescia and Monza and last month he completed a move to Turkish team Adana Demirspor.
The striker rarely looked likely to be a natural fit with Klopp’s approach at Liverpool and that move to Nice did at least give him two seasons where he more consistently showed what he could do.
These last three campaigns have proven less fruitful, however.
Balotelli has generally provided some superb moments wherever he has been throughout his career.
As has been said so often before, though, it remains a great shame that his obvious talent and multitude of abilities hasn’t rendered more regular individual and collective achievement.
It has not only been down to him, either. The lack of success at Liverpool can justifiably be seen as a two-way street, to some degree.
If the club hadn’t been at such a crossroads, he might just have been able to maximise a few more of those traits.
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