Liverpool vs Ludogorets: Mario Balotelli 'relishing' being main striker during Daniel Sturridge absence

Brendan Rodgers has backed the striker to step up - starting at Anfield on Tuesday

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The Independent Online

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers believes Mario Balotelli will relish the responsibility of being the side's senior striker.

The Italy international, a £16million signing last month, is now the main man up front in the absence of Daniel Sturridge, who is likely to be out for at least another fortnight with a thigh strain.

As Liverpool make their return to the Champions League after a five-year absence, the 24-year-old finds himself the side's third most experienced player in Europe's elite club competition.

He has failed to sparkle in his first two appearances, which has extended his goalscoring drought to six club games having grabbed 16 in 35 games prior to that for AC Milan.

However, Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets present ideal opposition to get his Liverpool career up and running in front of a home crowd and Rodgers believes Balotelli will embrace the responsibility.

"Time will tell. The boy is only just in the door," he said.

"The best players enjoy that responsibility and I am sure it is one he is relishing but on the training field he is going to work hard to accept that responsibility knowing he has been brought in here to do a job which is to create and score goals and work hard.

"He was unfortunate he was ill last week and it was only on the morning of the game (Saturday's defeat to Aston Villa) he declared himself fit to play, which shows he really wanted to get out and play here.

"He is also experienced as well. He is arguably one of the most experienced players we have in terms of this competition and international calibre and at club level."

 

Balotelli found himself on the receiving end of some rough stuff from Philippe Senderos and Alan Hutton at the weekend but Rodgers does not envisage a similar problem in Europe.

"We expect the referee to protect all our players, not just Mario," added the Reds boss.

"It is a man's game. It is a competitive game but if it oversteps the mark when he's not involved in the build-up then we would expect the referee and officials to look at it.

"But there are no complaints for me. Football is competitive and strong and we ask the players to be that in our team but be fair in the way we work."

The Italian has made 29 Champions League appearances, which puts him behind only Steven Gerrard (67) and Kolo Toure (62), and has scored seven goals.

A lack of experience - in tomorrow's squad only Gerrard remains from the 18 which played their last Champions League match in December 2009 - is something which Rodgers knows his side have to overcome.

"Absolutely it is a learning curve but it is one which excites us as well," he said.

"Steven has a great record in this competition, he is the highest goalscorer in the club's history with 28 goals and we have other players who have experience.

"We have a very young squad and they will gain experience - it is about embracing it. There is certainly no fear of the competition."

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Rodgers' primary aim is to ensure qualification for next year's Champions League but at this stage he is not setting his sights too high in terms of this year's competition.

"My main priority was to get the club back to this level because as a club it needs to be at this level for itself and football in general," he said.

"It is one of the footballing greats of the world and this is the elite competition in club football so if feels brilliant to be back.

"I think success is about qualifying from the group. We will take one game at a time: we are at home in our first game and we aim to perform well and get three points but we will respect them like we would if we were playing Real Madrid."

PA

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