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Aug 21, 2014

Balotelli is good business for Liverpool

ESPN FC's Shaka Hislop has had enough of Mario Balotelli, and says it's no longer worth taking a chance on the young striker.

Few things polarize social media like the terms "Liverpool" and "Mario Balotelli." So when news broke Thursday that the Italy striker appeared to be on his way to Anfield, the subsequent Twitterstorm was predictable.

On Monday, I made the point that Liverpool didn't need another high-profile striker, that Brendan Rodgers likely felt he'd be best served with the one-forward system he used for most of his managerial career and that, if he were going to add an option up front, it made sense for it to be a youngster or a mid-range squad player, rather than someone in the Edinson Cavani/Radamel Falcao bracket.

Some agreed; some didn't. What I think most can appreciate, though, is that at the reported agreed fee ($26.5 million), it may well be a roll of the dice worth making from Liverpool's perspective. It's a bit tougher to understand from Milan's perspective and, from Balotelli's vantage point, there are questions too.

As of early Thursday afternoon, the deal wasn't yet official. The numbers could yet change and, as ever, it could fall apart. But Balotelli himself said he'd had his final training session at Milanello. And every indication was that it was close to fruition.

Liverpool let one controversial striker in Luis Suarez go, but are signing another talented yet mercurial player in Balotelli.

WHY IT MAKES SENSE

For Liverpool: Balotelli turned 24 just last month. He's not a prolific goal scorer like Luis Suarez was but, since turning 20, he's averaged a goal every 140 minutes in league play for Milan and Manchester City. Which isn't that far off Suarez's numbers of one every 139 minutes of league play (albeit mostly all from open play, unlike Balotelli's) during his Liverpool career. The problem is getting Balotelli on the pitch and keeping him happy and motivated (aspects that were never a problem with Suarez). But it's a risk-reward thing. If Rodgers can get through to him and get him on the pitch regularly, even if he doesn't go to the next level in terms of potential, he'll still pick up a chunk of Suarez's slack at a portion of the price.

Tactically, he can easily play wide as an impact winger or through the middle, meaning he gives you a range of options: 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-diamond-2; that's not a problem for him. He also delivers commercially in terms of sponsors and image rights which, in the modern game, matters tremendously.

What makes it work is the fee: $26.5 million for a 24-year-old who -- barring some kind of cataclysm -- is likely to retain much of his transfer value even if he doesn't work out is a no-brainer.

For Milan: When you're in rebuilding mode, you need to make painful decisions sometimes. Balotelli belongs in the Champions League and Milan won't be there for a while. Best to take the cash, lose the headache and work from the ground up.

He made a huge contribution in his first six months at the club, but last season blew hot and cold. And what the Rossoneri need right now is someone consistent who can fit into new boss Pippo Inzaghi's system. Maybe coming home and playing for the club he supported as a boy wasn't such a good idea; maybe there was too much pressure on him.

If Inzaghi and the club feel they can't give him the right environment to help him mature and curb some of his excesses, there's no point in keeping him around.

For Balotelli: He's moving to a better league and a better team. As long as he performs on the pitch and gives his all, Liverpool can be an extremely forgiving place toward idiosyncratic players. He won't be wound up by racist abusers. And he'll feel less pressure because he won't be the main man and because, tabloid media aside, England is generally a quieter place for most foreign players. He has already had the experience of living abroad, so settling in on Merseyside should be less of an issue.

WHY IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE

For Liverpool: You can only have so many players on the pitch at one time. Some guys don't mind being rotated in and out of the team. Others do.

Balotelli is in the latter category, and Rodgers will already need to squeeze Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana in the starting lineup. Will Balotelli (or, indeed, any of the aforementioned trio) accept a part-time role? And if they don't, will they be unhappy in a quiet way or will they blow up and cause trouble?

Balotelli was depicted by some as the source of all of Manchester City's problems when they failed to win the title in 2012-13. Maybe that characterization was unfair, but football-wise, he wasn't missed. And now Milan seem only too happy to let him go. Doesn't that set off warning signs? By all accounts, Liverpool have a strong, united dressing room. Why risk jeopardizing that?

Then there's his work rate. At times, he's about as energetic and dynamic as the corner flag. Basically, the opposite of Suarez, who was a perpetual motion machine and whose movement was intelligent and purposeful.

And what of his mental state? His propensity to collect stupid red cards? I count six in the past four years, to which you can add the one he should have had at the World Cup for booting Alvaro Pereira in the head.

For Milan: It's an absurdly low fee relative to a replacement of comparable quality. There is no escaping that. If Ciro Immobile can go for roughly the same fee -- and he's six months older and nowhere near the same level -- then you know you're practically giving him away.

You're in a position now where you're forced to sign another centre-forward because all you have left is Giampaolo Pazzini who is 30 years old, often injured and managed all of two Serie A goals last year.

Think supporters were angry with club CEO and vice-president Adriano Galliani a year ago? They'll be even angrier now. You've thrown in the towel on Balotelli after just 18 months. What does that say about you and your ability to grow and adjust to your stars?

For Balotelli: You're joining a club that won't be built around you, which means you'll need to prove yourself to get playing time. Liverpool are not as heavily invested in you as Milan were and that means you'll run out of chances quicker. The food and weather aren't as good as they are back home. And the paparazzi are more intrusive. You'll be, once again, far away from your friends and most of your family.

BOTTOM LINE

At that price, it's a great deal for Liverpool. The worst-case scenario -- some kind of Balotelli madness that stops him from playing and sees him banished to the reserves- - isn't that catastrophic. You'll still get half your fee back which, when you throw in amortization, won't be that bad. Not when weighed against the positives, which range from performing the way he has in the past 18 months (acceptable at that fee) to having him live up to his potential and become one of the best strikers in the world.

Rodgers is going into this with his eyes wide open. It's not as if Balotelli is an unknown quantity in a Premier League environment. And he's obviously had success with guys like Suarez and Sturridge, both of whom were perceived to have checkered personalities.

Balotelli is intelligent enough to know that there's no point being where he's not wanted. Getting another crack at a big Premier League club is a chance worth taking. As for Milan, all you can do is shake your head. No planning, no foresight, a lot of hot air. At least when they sold Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic they got top dollar for them. Here, it appears they're selling Balotelli for little more than the price of a Shane Long or a Fabio Borini.

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