Liverpool look set to replace one controversial, prodigiously talented striker for another, with the news that Mario Balotelli is poised to complete a transfer to from Milan. Following the departure of Luis Suárez, Brendan Rodgers has been open about his desire to strengthen his striker options, which currently include just Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert. Rather than get in a low profile backup, however, Liverpool have taken a bold plunge and become the latest club to gamble on being able to harness the undoubted talent of Italy’s maverick center forward.
Except it really isn’t all that much of a gamble. A reported fee of £16 million represents a steal for a player of Balotelli’s ability in today’s market. Consider that this summer Ross McCormack, a 28-year-old with no experience in a major league was signed by Fulham for £11 million, while Shane Long, a 27 year-old, who has never reached double figures for league goals in a season, went for £12 million. Balotelli has just turned 24 and has scored 13 goals for Italy, has a Premier League winners’ medal and has played in a European Championship final.
Because of some of his antics off the pitch, it has often been overlooked how crucial Balotelli was to many of his teams’ triumphs. It was he who was voted Man of the Match in the 2011 FA Cup final, Manchester City’s first major silverware in 35 years. A year later his pass set up Sergio Aguero for a dramatic title-winning goal. And then there was the performance that provided the most vivid illustration of Balotelli’s world-class ability when he struck two fantastic goals to give Italy victory over Germany in the semifinals of Euro 2012. When he joined Milan in January 2013, his 12 goals in 13 league appearances propelled his new side toward gaining a Champions League spot that looked most improbable when he arrived.
And the off-the-field issues that provided constant material for the tabloid press during his first spell in England have largely disappeared and were massively overblown, and in many cases fabricated, in the first place.
Of course, that is not to say that Balotelli is a sure-fire guarantee of success, or that he arrives without problems. There is one key difference between Balotelli and the man he is effectively replacing. It was Suarez’s desperate desire to succeed and win that fuelled his on the pitch problems. Regardless of whatever criticism came his way, no one could ever accuse him of not giving his absolute maximum in every match, even after he was denied a transfer away last summer. Balotelli, however, particularly last season at Milan, has occasionally looked disinterested. He has also had destabilizing run-ins for teammates. It is easy to envisage Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge, who, for all his growth, still has a tendency for selfishness and inconsistency, being a partnership that could cause as much chaos within their own ranks as in opposition defenses, who will surely fear the frightening pace the duo possess.
They are certainly issues with which Liverpool will be well aware. But they still do not make £16 million anything other than a bargain. And there should be hope that, in contrast to the more hardline style of two of Balotelli’s previous managers, José Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, Rodgers’s more arm-round-the-shoulder approach can give Balotelli an environment to make him feel wanted and ultimately succeed. Sometimes lazy, when at his best Balotelli can harry opponents and put in the hard graft that was such an under-appreciated aspect of Suárez's game and which Rodgers desires from his team.
It could of course go horribly wrong. And had Liverpool spent two or three times the amount that £16 million fee, which a player of his ability could easily go for, then more question marks would be warranted. As it is, the upsides far outweigh the down in a deal that is likely to complete a frenetic summer of spending at Anfield.