Most football fans have long since made their minds up on the enigma that is Mario Balotelli.
Regardless of whether you consider him a misunderstood young player with incredible technical ability, or an overrated striker whose problems off the field far outweigh the plus points of any minor successes on it, most of you already had an opinion formed in your mind long before his arrival at Liverpool last summer.
Brendan Rodgers admitted back in December that his signing was a gamble, albeit an expensive one priced at £16m. And while the Italian was never going to be a direct replacement for Luis Suarez, one of the greatest players in world football, it’s completely understandable that we’ve all been disappointed with his return.
In quotes takes by the Daily Mirror back in December, Rodgers said: “As as a club we felt that buying Mario was the solution at the time. I felt it was a risk we needed to take with Mario because, as a group, we couldn’t afford not to at that time. It was obviously late on and we needed to have someone in.”
He certainly wasn’t wrong. His injury fears over Daniel Sturridge proved alarmingly accurate and while Fabio Borini eventually chose to stay, as the Mirror explains, he’s offered little to the first-team picture this season. Without Balotelli, we’d have been left with Rickie Lambert as our only viable option.
And yet, his words carry hints of a deeper meaning, a suggestion that he never truly envisaged Balotelli playing a major role in his side. It’s been mentioned time and again on this very site that Mario doesn’t fit Rodgers’ preferred system, nor is he his ideal style of centre-forward – quick, clever, always hanging on the last defender.
There’s plenty of evidence to support this – not least the fact that Raheem Sterling has played more games in a central striking role than Balotelli has this season. Prior to last Saturday’s game with West Brom, the 24-year-old had made just one start in any competition since November.
It’s all well and good giving him 20 minutes here and there or giving him a start after five months out of the side, then bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t produced. Rubbishing his measly return of four goals in all competitions. But this isn’t fair on anyone.
Balotelli needs to feel loved. He had it at Manchester City and he produced, at least for the most part. He had it at AC Milan and he produced. He’s had it at times for the Italian national team and has produced. He’s scored 77 goals over the past five seasons for club and country, which surely proves that he has something to offer.
As it stands, Rodgers may as well be brandishing him on a stick, saying ‘look what you’ve given me to work with’. He either needs to be played with a partner, as he was at City, or he needs to be dropped. He can’t play in that isolated linchpin role that has inexplicably been demanded of him.
Most Liverpool fans still cling in hope to that golden hour against Tottenham, when Balotelli and a fully-fit Daniel Sturridge played side-by-side. They looked good! And played a significant part in a 3-0 victory that day.
Love him or hate him, ten Premier League starts does not represent a fair opportunity, let alone when he’s been playing as part of an underperforming Liverpool side often without some of our best attacking talent.
Let’s give him one more season to show us what he can do, ideally alongside a refreshed and reinforced strike-force. If he doesn’t come good, then fair enough, it’ll be time to say goodbye. Balotelli has often been used as the stick to beat Liverpool with this season, especially by the neutrals. How dearly we’d love to see him prove them wrong.