“I think we have done a really smart piece of business here.”
Those were the words of Brendan Rodgers upon signing Mario Balotelli for Liverpool. It was “outstanding value” for a player whose ability there was “no doubting”. At the time, question marks were raised over the signing, but nearly all concerns were directed to Mario’s attitude – not his quality.
Mario Balotelli has become football’s forgotten man; a player struggling not only to make the back pages, but the front pages too – a rare problem for the controversial Italian.
It’s not as if he’s a bad player – though we say it with less conviction than when he signed two years ago, having hit double figures in his domestic league for the prior three years, with Manchester City and then AC Milan. With a solitary goal in each of his last two campaigns, with us and then with Milan again, we’re not so sure anymore.
For once as a Liverpool fan, I feel blessed that we are light on deadwood to shift this summer. In recent seasons we’ve had major problems trying to move on the likes of Andy Carroll, Alberto Aquilani (which felt like an endless saga), and the one that I celebrated like a £30m signing – getting rid of Paul Konchesky. I feel like almost all of the current squad have enough about them to turn their fortunes around, if they’re not performing well already. The same cannot be said for Mario, whose stock has fallen so far that even the pound sterling has a decent exchange rate against him.
Still in the summer of his playing days, he has become the complete antithesis of an in-demand player; if there’s one footballer in the world whose picture would be in every football club’s boardroom with a note saying “DO NOT SIGN”, it’s him. His form, inevitably high wage demands and his behavioural history make him undesirable to – it appears – literally everyone, though that hasn’t stopped masses of club owners and managers flirting with the idea.
However, it seems that all interested parties ultimately shake the masochistic thought from their head before entering any formal negotiations. So far this summer we’ve seen it with Besiktas, as well as Serie A teams Pescara and Crotone. At the moment we’re, bizarrely, hoping that Ajax qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, in order to offer us some glimmer of hope. Apparently. Either that, or hoping that another Chinese club will think with their pockets and turn a blind eye to that note in their boardroom.
And so, as the days tick by, the prospect of another season with Balotelli on Liverpool’s books becomes – hopelessly – more likely. Would he be utilised at all, in the current squad? In Ings, Origi and Sturridge we have – I believe – the most competitive striking triumvirate in recent memory. Add to that list Roberto Firmino, who may be forced forward in position due to the signings of Mane and Wijnaldum, and Balotelli’s chances of registering even a cup appearance this season look slim. For the time being, at least, we still have Christian Benteke ahead in the pecking order, though he is looking like a much more favourable acquisition for other clubs; despite not fitting in with the team’s style of play, he has obvious quality, highlighted by the amount of points gained by his goals last season.
Therefore, it seems, we’re to endure another season of one of our highest earners “rotting in the reserves” as the cliche goes, though not through any major behavioural incident – which is even more surprising, given Balotelli’s past. He is deadwood. May he be the last.