As pressure mounted on Mario Balotelli to produce a performance worthy of his reputation, Brendan Rodgers has admitted that when it came to replacing Luis Suarez, he had few if any candidates to choose from.
The Liverpool manager acknowledged that although Balotelli possessed something of Suarez’s star quality, he has carried nowhere near the same level of threat, adding that he “needs to improve – it is as simple as that”.
During Wednesday night’s 1-0 defeat to Basel, Balotelli barely appeared in the opposition penalty area at St Jakob-Park. His tally of goals since his £16m move from Milan stands at one, scored at home against Ludogorets, a team few at Anfield would have heard of before the Champions League draw.
Given that Liverpool would have known that Suarez would be quitting Anfield since his expulsion from the World Cup in June, it could be argued they should not have to rely on someone whom Rodgers admitted was “a calculated risk”.
“There are very few players who can replace Luis Suarez; actually there are no players who can replace Luis Suarez,” said Rodgers. “When you look at the availability of other players during the summer, it was something that was difficult for us.
“It was about the availability and affordability of players and I said when he came in that Mario was a calculated risk and that is something I have to make work for the team.
“We bought Rickie Lambert as someone who can play some games for us, come off the bench and be an impact player in certain games. Daniel Sturridge is a top Premier League player but he has shown during his time here that he does get injuries. Obviously, Fabio Borini looked like he was on his way out.”
The solution appeared to be a deal to sign Loïc Rémy from Queen’s Park Rangers. Had he not failed Liverpool’s medical, Rémy’s pace and directness would probably have suited their style of play far better than Balotelli. He would also have attracted rather fewer of the non-football headlines that can drain dressing-room morale.
The latest was Balotelli’s failure to applaud the supporters who had made the journey from the Mersey to the Rhine on Wednesday to watch a performance that left the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, aghast.
Rodgers said: “We had attempts for other strikers that didn’t materialise for one reason or another and left us right at the end of the transfer window with a decision of whether to go with what we had – and experience told us we were too light up front – or take a calculated risk on a player who has quality. The question then was could we get it out of him consistently?”
The answer increasingly appears to be no, although Rodgers has been working overtime to try to make Balotelli the kind of player to fit Liverpool’s system. The irony is that when the Italian made his comeback in the Premier League, the suggestion was that he had too much off-the-pitch baggage to succeed. Few imagined his failures on the pitch might see the kind of flop his agent, Mino Raiola, confessed his career could not afford.
For the long term, Rodgers is investing plenty of faith in Divock Origi, the 19-year-old whom he bought from Lille for £10m in July and then immediately loaned back to the French club.
“We believe he will be world class and we will get him back to Anfield in the summer,” he said. “Now, he is a top player. He has everything but the deal was that he could not play for us now. That was unfortunate because he can run in behind, he can keep the ball, he can press and he can run.” In short, Origi can do what Balotelli has not.
Gerrard’s assessment after the defeat by Basel that “we were second best to an OK team” was withering, as was his suggestion that too many in Rodgers’s starting line-up were quite prepared to leave Switzerland with a point.
Much has been said about Liverpool’s defensive frailties but since Sturridge was injured at the start of last month, their attacking edge has become dull and blunt. Gerrard salvaged a victory against Ludogorets with a last-minute penalty and it was his free-kick that opened up the Merseyside derby last Saturday. The flowing goals from open play, often scored early, that were such a feature of Liverpool last season appear to have dried up.
“We need to return to being a team,” said Rodgers. “And he [Balotelli] needs to improve – it is as simple as that. As a striker, you are judged on your goals and the number of assists you make. This club is not about the individual, it is about the team.”
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