Since his return to the Premier League there have been many questions asked about Mario Balotelli, most of them irrelevant. Would he let off fireworks in his hotel bathroom? Did he donate thousands of pounds to a Manchester dogs home? Only now is the question of whether he is good enough for Liverpool beginning to be addressed.
The patience of the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, with a man he described as his “calculated risk” is beginning to wear thin and, following the Italian’s non- performance in Switzerland on Wednesday night, Rodgers dropped the striker to the bench. Given that Daniel Sturridge will be returning after the international break, Balotelli might have to get used to the view.
In terms of the naked result, the change was justified. Liverpool won their first Premier League game since Tottenham were demolished with style and a brutal panache on the last afternoon in August; the last game Sturridge started for Liverpool and the first one Balotelli played.
After all the speculation that he would feature for his club two days after being declared unfit for England’s forthcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers against San Marino and Estonia, Sturridge did not even make the squad. Rodgers said only: “I hoped he would be fit but he wasn’t.”
The most damning comment made by Steven Gerrard after the Champions League defeat in Basel on Wednesday was that Liverpool had been prepared to settle for a point against “an OK team”.
In terms of the Premier League, West Bromwich Albion are an OK team and, although this was a better performance than the one they delivered in Switzerland, Liverpool’s season will not be defined by results against OK teams.
“The depth of honesty in the squad gives me hope,” said Rodgers, who pointed out that in both his seasons on Merseyside, the second half of the campaign had been better than the first. “As we work, the quality of our game will improve and we had to find a way to win against a team that is confident, keeps clean sheets and is difficult to beat.”
Nevertheless, the match turned on two lovely touches from Jordan Henderson. The first created Adam Lallana’s debut goal in a Liverpool shirt while the second, a beautiful, sidefooted shot into the net beneath the Kop, settled the match.
Those who wonder what Rodgers can do for Balotelli might like to remember that when he took charge of his first match as Liverpool manager – a 3-0 defeat at The Hawthorns – the only questions asked about Henderson were about how Liverpool could possibly find a club willing to pay the £20million Kenny Dalglish appeared to have squandered on the midfielder.
Dalglish was one of two former Liverpool managers in the crowd – the other was Gerard Houllier –and here he saw Henderson as the player he imagined him to be when buying him from Sunderland. First, there was a neat flick as, having received the ball from Lallana on the edge of the area, he gave it back with interest. Lallana drove his shot past Ben Foster and appeared overcome by the emotion of scoring his first goal at Anfield.
That it came seconds before the interval was important but the timing was doubly so. As David Moyes’s assistant at Everton, the Albion manager, Alan Irvine, would have gone to Anfield many times. “Midway through the first half, the mood in the crowd was starting to swing and it might have turned,” he said. “But the goal changed things.”
Like Rodgers, the highlight of Irvine’s season thus far had been a win at White Hart Lane and West Brom went into this match in rather better form than their opponents.
“I was a bit disappointed with the way we used the ball,” Irvine said. “We needed more self-belief and courage. We were not brave enough before the break. Afterwards, we were much better and my fear was we would be done on the counter-attack, which isn’t something you expect to happen too much at Anfield.”
West Brom deserved their equaliser, although the manner of it was questionable since Dejan Lovren’s foul on Saido Berahino seemed to be just outside the area. Irvine’s first question to the fourth official, Jon Moss, when Berahino fell was: “Was it inside?”
Berahino rather likes the autumn. At the end of September last year, he had sealed West Brom’s first victory at Old Trafford since 1978. The penalty smashed past Simon Mignolet yesterday was his fourth goal in three matches and ensured Liverpool‘s defensive record stands at one clean sheet in 16.
It should probably have given West Brom a point but the penalty appeared to galvanise Liverpool and six minutes later they might have had one of their own when Craig Gardner bundled over Raheem Sterling, whose touch appeared to have deserted him. The referee, Michael Oliver, waved play on, the ball broke to Henderson and Liverpool were back in front.
Two minutes later, Balotelli appeared. There were a couple of shots and rather more appearances in the opposition penalty area than he had managed in Basel but it was not remotely heroic. Sturridge’s return will be welcomed in Roy Hodgson and Rodgers’s households, rather less in the corridors Balotelli paces.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Manquillo (Johnson 63), Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Gerrard; Sterling, Lallana, Coutinho (Lucas 75); Lambert (Balotelli 63).
West Brom (4-4-1-1): Foster; Gamboa, Dawson, Lescott, Pocognoli; Dorrans (Mulumbu 71), Gardner, Morrison (Blanco 80), Brunt (Samaras 87); Sessegnon; Berahino.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Man of the match: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content