Did you see it? Did you? It was everywhere over social media at the weekend. How could you not have?
Mario Balotelli – surly, frowning, ‘Why Always Him?’ Mario Balotelli – actually cracked a couple of smiles as Liverpool progressed to the last eight of the FA Cup at Crystal Palace – first when he played a part in Adam Lallana’s winning goal (for which he also raised a fist in triumph) and then again at full-time. Brilliant, right?
A flash of Mario’s pearly whites might have been what was making the headlines – simply because the Italian is who he is – but what we really should be talking about is Balotelli’s best week since he arrived on Merseyside, with his second half performance coming hot on the heels of last week’s winning goal against Tottenham – and now Twitter loved that.
He didn’t take the Selhurst Park pitch by storm on Saturday evening, but his half-time introduction by Brendan Rodgers allowed Liverpool to gain more of a cutting edge in attack following a first half in which they’d dominated possession but lacked composure.
Balotelli’s arrival in place of Lazar Markovic didn’t alter the formation too much, but as Lallana moved to the right the substitute was asked to get into positions to support Daniel Sturridge as quickly as possible by his manager, and crucially that’s exactly what he did.
Less than a month on from Rodgers telling all and sundry that the forward wasn’t going to be part of his plans unless he adapted his game and learned how to press opponents, here was Balotelli virtually pressing his teammates into giving him the ball in dangerous areas. He both won and took the free-kick before Lallana’s goal, with the England international reacting quickest after Julian Speroni failed to keep out a fierce strike.
Forty-five minutes at Selhurst Park don’t make or break a season – although plenty will remember 11 of Liverpool’s there last May – but if the penny is finally dropping for Balotelli then that really is something to be celebrated.
There was a smile for his supporters on Instagram after the Tottenham goal too – a match in which a sprint to reach and Rabona a ball away from the touchline was greeted with a huge cheer – and if these are signs that this most complex of characters is starting to feel at home then his Liverpool career might just last a bit longer than many people think.
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It helps, of course, that the Reds have emerged from their hangover-like state at the beginning of the season to find some frankly excellent form.
They’ve only lost once in 90 minute football in 22 matches stretching back to their last visit to Palace in November, and whilst Balotelli’s contribution to that has been negligible so far, it might just get a whole lot more noticeable soon.
The celebrated return of Sturridge has given Rodgers more of an attacking threat, but the forward would appear to work best with a partner – and that’s where Balotelli comes in.
Having proved that he can field the pair together without drastically altering his three at the back formation, Rodgers may have hit upon something which will serve him well in the business end of the campaign.
The task now is to reproduce this whilst also finding room for Raheem Sterling once the shining beacon of Liverpool’s season returns from his minor injury, with a probable need to rest the overworked Philippe Coutinho soon perhaps opening up an opportunity in the short-term for the Liverpool manager.
The shortest term is Thursday night’s Europa League tie at home to Besiktas, a fixture that Liverpool wouldn’t have wanted when they started their Champions League campaign but one that Balotelli probably deserves to start in.
The Italian scored Liverpool’s first goal in European competition this season when he netted his first for the club against Ludogorets, and a start with Sturridge would give the Reds the best chance of a positive result ahead of a tricky return leg at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul – 10 years on from it providing the backdrop to Steven Gerrard’s whirling arms, Jerzy Dudek’s wobbly legs and a stunned AC Milan.
As Gerrard fades from view the time for such nostalgia might be going with him, but the current Liverpool look to be a team on the up and one in which there is still room for a rejuvenated Balotelli.
And that’s got to be worth smiling about.
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