Finally, Mario - as his Twitter handle has it. It only took the famously enigmatic Italian striker 13 league games and six months of his Liverpool career but Mario Balotelli’s first league goal for the club arrived just in time.
That it came tonight to decide an open, attacking five-goal game was testament to the drama that pursues the Italian wherever he goes although, in this part of his career, there had been conspicuously little of that until his winner over Tottenham. In the seconds after the goal, Brendan Rodgers turned and pointed delightedly up to the directors’ box where John W Henry, the club’s owner, will have been just as relieved at the outcome.
Balotelli has been a £16m gamble and no matter how precious the points against Spurs he will still need to contribute a great deal more before he can even be considered close to a success. “Oh Balotelli, he’s mugging you off” the Spurs fans sang to their Liverpool counterparts when the Italian first came on and up until the goal there was no great argument from the home crowd.
But there was a great roar at full-time as Liverpool secured the victory that takes them within three points of Arsenal in the fourth Champions League place. As for Balotelli, he pulled off his gloves and walked straight off the pitch without a glimmer of emotion or a look back at his team-mates. That is just the way he does things.
For Spurs, this was just there third defeat in 16 games but having come back twice from a goal behind, they lacked the wherewithal to beat a club that has had the better of them so many times in recent years. Twice they scored through Harry Kane, his 23rd of the season, and then Moussa Dembele after Lazar Markovic and then Steven Gerrard – from the penalty spot – had given Liverpool the lead.
It was not a defensive masterclass by any stretch of the imagination but it was nonetheless, an open and interesting game in which both sides made an early commitment to expose one another’s obvious weaknesses at the back.
There was no Raheem Sterling in the Liverpool side, a foot injury ruling him out of the match, which meant another start for the promising 19-year-old Jordon Ibe who was willing to run at Danny Rose at every opportunity and often his way around the full-back. It was Rodgers’ team who made the early running but they turned out to be just as susceptible to errors in defence as Spurs.
Twice in the first half the away team did their best to open up their own defence with errant passes from Ryan Mason and then Nabil Bentaleb that both found their way to Daniel Sturridge. The first time he scuffed his shot, the second he found himself caught by Eric Dier, and both times the Englishman knew that he should have done much better.
By the end of the half, Sturridge had also hit the post with an improvised backheel after Ibe had got the ball over from the right wing and Spurs had failed to clear. The goal itself had come on 20 minutes from Markovic, who picked up possession when Jan Vertonghen’s challenge on Sturridge dropped to his feet and cut left. His shot was not cleanly hit and seemed to lack the pace to beat Hugo Lloris but the goalkeeper let it through nonetheless.
The French goalkeeper makes few mistakes, and he had already saved twice before from Sturridge – the second an exceptional stop – but he had to take his share of the blame this time. Liverpool had come out the blocks quickly and then they allowed Spurs straight back into the game.
The away team worked an opening for Kane just six minutes after falling behind and while it was a good lay-off by Erik Lamela, the crucial moment came when Mamadou Sakho fell over. It gave Kane that extra space to hit his shot, not a good one in the circumstances, but Simon Mignolet failed to get behind it and the ball eluded him.
The half ended with more chances for Liverpool, another run and shot for Ibe and then Sturridge’s back heel and after the break it was no different. They went after each other again and it was the home team who got the breakthrough. Rose just overstretched himself in the left channel of his own box when he tried to toe the ball away from Sturridge and caught the striker.
The referee Phil Dowd relied upon the guidance of his assistant on that side of the pitch to make the call and all things considered, he seemed to get it right. From the penalty spot, in front of the Anfield Road end of the ground, Gerrard dispatched his tenth goal of the season. He remains the club’s top goalscorer this season.
Once again there was a chance for the home team to close the game out but they did not take it. Shortly afterwards, Mignolet saved superbly from Lamela’s shot from the edge of the area. Then Gerrard conceded a free-kick with a challenge on Mason on the hour and Liverpool were undone again.
Mignolet did well to save the initial free-kick from Christian Eriksen but the ball dropped to Kane on the left side whom the home team would later protest was offside. He tried a shot that turned into a cross and Dembele, almost on the line, forced the ball over. Mignolet was adamant that the goal was offside but Dowd was not for changing his mind.
Rodgers switched his team with 20 minutes left. Looking like he might have picked up a strain, Gerrard was replaced by Dejan Lovren and Emre Can moved up into midfield. Balotelli came on for a very reluctantly substituted Sturridge. The final move of the day was the replacement of Markovic with Adam Lallana.
It was Lallana who forced the breakthrough, crossing for Balotelli to get in between Spurs’ central defenders and get a foot to the ball for the winner. Cue the scenes of delight in Anfield, and a resurgence that carries on with an unlikely new hero.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Ibe, Henderson, Gerrard (Lovren, 68), Moreno; Markovic (Lallana, 79), Coutinho; Sturridge (Balotelli, 74).
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose; Bentaleb, Mason (Paulinho, 69); Lamela, Dembele (Soldado, 85), Eriksen (Chadli, 80); Kane.
Referee: P Dowd.
Man of the match: Can
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