Balotelli is worth the risk for Liverpool
A few weeks back during Liverpool's preseason tour of the U.S., Brendan Rodgers made some flattering remarks about Mario Balotelli, sparking speculation that the Reds wanted to sign the controversial Italian striker.
Speculation, it should be said, that an incredulous Rodgers was quick to dismiss out of hand. "I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool," the Reds boss said on the eve of Liverpool's game against Manchester United in Miami.
Fast-forward a few weeks and Liverpool have signed the former Inter and Manchester City star. So what changed? Only the top brass at Liverpool will know for certain, but the most likely scenario is that having been left frustrated in attempts to land any of the forwards he actually did want, Rodgers turned to Balotelli.
Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani were targets but proved to be unattainable and it was looking like free agent Samuel Eto'o was Liverpool's last remaining option. At 16 million pounds, Balotelli will cost significantly more than Eto'o but clearly represents a significant upgrade on the veteran Cameroon man.
Even so, it seems a bizarre move by Liverpool, especially given Rodgers' comments in Miami. Indeed, some would even say it smacks of desperation. Three weeks ago Rodgers laughed off the mere suggestion he might be interested in the player, yet now he's ready to spend millions not only on taking Super Mario to Anfield, but also making him one of the club's highest-paid players in the process.
It's perhaps the most unlikely transfer of the summer, and it could just as easily turn out to be the best as it could the worst. There's rarely much in between where Balotelli is concerned.
Rodgers clearly has some misgivings and justifiably so. Trouble is never far from the Italian and there's every chance his stay at Anfield won't be a particularly long one. The 24-year-old has led a fairly nomadic football existence thus far and has worn out his welcome fairly quickly wherever he has been.
He can play, though, which is why big teams keep giving him an opportunity. No one has scored more goals in Serie A than Balotelli since he returned home, yet Milan are allowing him to leave for a relative pittance. There has to be a reason for that.
For all the obvious concerns, it's easy to see why Liverpool have made this surprise move. He's a striker, he has bags of talent and as the entire footballing world knows, Liverpool need another talented striker. If Rodgers could somehow straighten him out and get him focused on his football, the sky really is the limit for Mario.
It's a huge if, though. Others have tried and failed, and history is littered with managers who believed they were capable of fixing "problem child" footballers. Rodgers is certainly better equipped than most, but club psychologist Dr. Steve Peters may want to request a pay rise as his job may be about to become a lot more stressful.
There is an element of risk in any signing, but this one is perhaps not quite as risky as it may first appear. Yes, Balotelli is unpredictable and has a chequered disciplinary record to say the least, but the risk is lessened greatly by the bargain fee and because Liverpool don't need him to come in and be the main man. Their season will not hinge on whether Balotelli behaves himself, but if he does, then they will surely be a genuine force now, if they weren't already.
Liverpool's first XI even without the addition of Balotelli is capable of matching anybody. What they were lacking was another top-notch front man who could relieve the pressure on Daniel Sturridge by either filling in for him or partnering him. Whether Balotelli and Sturridge can form a successful partnership remains to be seen, but the Italian would certainly strike more fear into opposing defenders than Rickie Lambert or Fabio Borini, for example. Put simply, Liverpool should be much stronger with Balotelli on board.
The Merseysiders have of course just parted company with a player who was also never far from controversy, so bringing in another does seem like leaping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Comparisons between Balotelli and Luis Suarez are inevitable but also inaccurate.
The Uruguayan brought more than his fair share of trouble to Liverpool's door, but at no point did the aggravation ever outweigh his production. That is not the case with Balotelli -- at least it wasn't during his time at Manchester City and Inter. There were flashes of brilliance but never enough to compensate for the headaches he caused. Consistency was a problem for the Italian when he last played in England; it was either feast or famine. It was never dull, though, that's for sure.
Statistically speaking, he's done extremely well in his 18 months at Milan. He'll always be a little eccentric as that's his nature, but that in itself is not a problem. There's room for eccentric; there isn't room for disruptive or lazy. You cannot guarantee he won't be disruptive and his work rate is at times questionable, and that is reflected by the incredibly low fee for a player so talented.
Football fans love a character but quickly tire of it when the character side starts to outweigh the contribution on the pitch. There have been so many stories told about Balotelli -- 90 percent of them completely false, it should be said -- but Liverpool fans won't care about any of his off-field antics provided he delivers on the pitch. The in-game sulking and occasional rush of blood that has led to silly red cards will be of far greater concern to Kopites than him letting off fireworks out of his bathroom window, although the Merseyside fire brigade may disagree.
The risk in this deal is not financial, it's a football one. Liverpool won't lose money on the deal if they move him on, but the cost of a needless red card in a high-profile game could be huge. Whenever reminiscing upon Balotelli's career thus far, it's not the goals that spring to mind, it's the madness -- namely, a senseless dismissal when City played at Anfield in 2011.
He came on as a substitute and was yellow carded within minutes. Roberto Mancini may have been the only person inside Anfield that day who didn't know what was coming next. Another daft yellow card arrived soon after and Balotelli's afternoon was over. He was on the field for less than 15 minutes that day and the way he casually just strolled off down the tunnel is an image that has stuck with many English fans ever since. Any City fan would have been justifiably livid.
There's more than a hint of "Moneyball" about this deal. Balotelli is a 30 million-pound talent available for a little over half that amount. If he doesn't fit in or proves to be troublesome in any way, he could be moved on next summer without any significant loss.
Even if he's a success, Liverpool may still opt to cash in on him at some point in the near future. This is not a signing for the long term. Mario doesn't do long term, and besides, Liverpool's long term looks to be secure with Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Divock Origi.
The money men at Anfield will see this as great business. The football men probably needed some convincing, but Balotelli at that price is almost too good to be true. Southampton recently purchased Shane Long for 12 million pounds and Fulham paid Leeds 11 million for Ross McCormack this summer. Goal scorers rarely come cheap, which once again highlights what great value for money Loic Remy would have represented.
In the absence of better, more stable alternatives, taking a punt on Balotelli is understandable but it will still divide the Liverpool fan base. There is concern among many supporters that Balotelli may upset the Anfield apple cart due to his reputation for being somewhat selfish and ill-disciplined.
Rodgers has assembled a terrific young squad and Liverpool's revival under his management has been largely based on players buying into his philosophy of hard work and the team being more important than any individual. Can Balotelli fit into that? If he can't then he won't last long, particularly with the talented Origi set to check in next summer.
The scepticism toward this deal is understandable and justifiable, but even the most cynical of supporters must be at least a little curious, excited even, to see how this plays out. There stands to be some brilliant goals, some breathtaking moments of individual play and a lot of standing around sulking in between. Liverpool were the great entertainers last season, but with this signing they will become must-see TV for football fans all over the world.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.