More hot air than hot finishing. The video footage which surfaced this week of Mario Balotelli singing Liverpool chants with a mouthful of helium somehow epitomised what he tends to bring to a club.
The response he received when leaving the Anfield turf in the closing minutes revealed a set of fans ready and willing to take him into their hearts. But a game which ended minutes later with Liverpool being punished for their failure to make something out of their superiority served only to illustrate that they need more than he has delivered so far.
He was always there, on the margins of the game, threatening to deliver something up for Liverpool. But a cameo moment on 70 minutes told the story. Adam Lallana, cast into the cauldron of a derby for only his second Anfield start, gestured to the space he needed the Italian to run into as they broke into a counter attack. Balotelli adhered to the command, reached the designated space, and promptly fell over.
His fiery confrontations with Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, Tony Hibbert and Steven Naismith created the perennial sense that this combination of man and match was about to combust. Brendan Rodgers has hung his reputation on being able to fashion something out of Balotelli that Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Clarence Seedorf (a big boyhood hero of Balotelli’s) have not. So he made encouraging noises about his man after the game. But even Rodgers could not deny that the risk of a sending off was always there for this player. “I think it’s something he must focus on the game,” Rodgers said. “Emotions are high and you are only going to win if you have got ten players on the field. He looked like he could get a goal and was disappointed he didn’t score.”
In flashes, the opposition found him hard to handle to. It was Balotelli who won the marginal free-kick which Steven Gerrard flashed in on 65 minutes: a strike Tim Howard will be disappointed he didn’t stop, given that he got a hand to it. It was Balotelli who took a long pass down on his chest, swivelled and shot two yards wide. On today’s evidence, he is a better player than the one whose interventions on a game at Manchester City could be few.
But the noises he creates in the background of a game call into question how he can apply the mental focus that Rodgers is asking him for. The ball kicked away after a free kick was conceded after 20 minutes, which should have earned him the yellow card Naismith was in Atkinson’s ear about. The baffling collapse to ground in the penalty area in the second half, when there had been barely a contact from Phil Jagielka. The screams of anguish as he came under a hard, but fair, challenge from Tony Hibbert. The angry words for Javier Manquillo at a pass not delivered. The spurned first half chance, skewed wide with his head from Raheem Sterling’s cross. All moments considered, the debit column was longer than the credit. It was a six out of ten performance.
The puzzling aspect of all this for Liverpool is that Rodgers is a manager who asks his players for more discipline than most: to press and submit their individualism to the collective cause. The £16m man is not a collectivist, nor a man for the barricades. He will be an affordable luxury if others working around him can provide a big impact, though that feels like a very big ‘if’ as things stand. Daniel Sturridge does not currently feel like a man for all seasons, clamouring to play as you might expect on a derby day. Most of Liverpool wants Rickie Lambert to find a happy homecoming near the place of his birth though he does not look like a Liverpool player yet.
Balotelli will never be conventional of course. The unpredictability is part of the attraction. But Liverpool’s aims are high. They will need materially more from him than flashes of promise. The disappointment washing up the Anfield Road last night carried a sharp reminder of that.