‘’I’m aware he’s a terrific penalty taker. I’m sure he’ll get the chance to take some penalties for the club. The manager has told me if I’m not on the pitch then he’ll take them.”
The words of Steven Gerrard back in August, when the sun shone, the only talk of Galaxies on Merseyside centred around chocolate bars and Mario Balotelli had just signed for Liverpool from AC Milan. This was his final chance at a big club, we were told.
But that chance hasn’t exactly gone to plan, largely due to the Italian’s poor form. Too many missed chances, too many pained expressions and too many frustrating days have gone by for many. He’s been written off more times than a nervous learner driver’s Vauxhall Corsa.
He scored the winning goal in the highly charged and highly significant Premier League meeting with Tottenham at Anfield, and then followed that up with a game-changing appearance off the bench in the FA Cup at Crystal Palace. When he entered the pitch after 63 minutes of the Europa League clash with Besiktas he instantly looked to be the best player out there.
It isn’t enough evidence to suggest that everything has suddenly changed and that the Italian is on the way to breaking Ian Rush’s Liverpool goalscoring record – four down, 342 to go – but it is at least a start, and so why, then, is his captain hanging him out to dry?
Let’s be honest here, when the excellent Jordon Ibe was wrestled to the ground in front of the Kop – the scene of so many successful penalty appeals in the past – there really was only one man on the pitch who was qualified to take Liverpool’s spot kick.
Penalty taking has been one of the few consistencies in Balotelli’s career. He’s good at them. He’s scored 26 of the 28 he’s taken competitively, and there are even YouTube videos out there dedicated to his prowess from 12 yards.
Jordan Henderson grabbed hold of the ball and so, as captain, what he did next was always going to matter most.
The midfielder has no penalty taking record to speak of, whilst Daniel Sturridge has an erratic one and blazed his last spot kick over the bar when looking for a hat-trick in last season’s Merseyside derby at Anfield. Neither had had good games here.
Enter Mario. The ball, the spot, the goal, the lead to take to Istanbul next week.
It would have been different had Balotelli barged in front of Gerrard to take the penalty – in a manner similar to what we saw from Kevin Mirallas on the other side of Stanley Park a month ago when Leighton Baines was the frustrated party – but he wasn’t.
Gerrard’s words at full-time, then, don’t exactly help matters.
Although admittedly egged on by fellow ITV pundits Peter Reid and Gordon Strachan, Gerrard spoke of the forward showing “disrespect” and being “a bit mischievous.” As he should have been aware, those words are everywhere today. That is the story, and not Liverpool’s 1-0 win, and it didn’t have to be like that.
As the club captain, Gerrard has every right to be upset by seeing his charges arguing in front of the Kop, but can those words not have waited until a trip to the dressing room at full-time? As ever with Balotelli, it seems as though opinions have to be aired and actions have to be quick.
If anything perhaps Gerrard’s anger should be with Henderson, whose lack of control over the situation and apparent descent into a bit of a strop suggests he’s got a long way to go if he’s going to be his permanent replacement as captain in the summer.
Balotelli took responsibility, took the penalty and took Liverpool towards another victory, and that really should be all that matters.
The Italian’s profile dictates that that will never be enough, though, but at a time when he looks to be kicking on a little and gaining in confidence, the forward could do with a helping hand from those around him and getting the little bit of indulgence he clearly needs.
Gerrard was willing to give it to him back in August, so why not now?