Liverpool's Balotelli Dilemma: How do you solve a problem like Mario?

Mario Balotelli - the enigma that has beaten a number of managers in the past. Today the maverick Italian is being hounded by fans and media alike on social networks who believe the £16m "bargain" that Liverpool paid for him now looks as big an error as the £35m for Andy Carroll.

Yesterday Mario Balotelli committed what now apparently is the worst crime a footballer can commit, he swapped his shirt at half time with Real Madrid's Pepe in the 3-0 Champions League squashing by the current title holders. The ever ridiculous Mark Lawrenson has today called this "sheer madness" and Brendan Rodgers told the media that Mario Balotelli will face an in house punishment for, reiterating: "Any action would be kept within ourselves. We've had a conversation. Case closed."

Mario Balotelli began his career with Lumezzane before moving on to Inter Milan permanently in 2007. He would play 59 times in Serie A, scoring 20 goals and quickly becoming a prodigy at the San Siro. Balotelli would win 3 league titles with Inter as well as a UEFA Champions League, a Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana. However he fell out with manager José Mourinho in fairly spectacular style and wore an AC Milan jersey on an Italy television show. His bad-boy image would spiral with air pistol incidents, red cards and storming out of the training ground meaning the club would look to sell him on.

In August 2010 Manchester City paid €21.8m for the young forward, Roberto Mancini saying: "His style of play will suit the Premier League, and because he is still so young there is a big chance for him to improve. He is a strong and exciting player, and City fans will enjoy watching him." The number 45 played 17 Premier League games in his first season in England, scoring 6 goals. The following year would be perhaps his highest profile as Manchester City won the title, Balotelli would net 13 in 23 in the Premier League, 17 in 32 in all competitions. A personal highlight though would surely be assisting that famous "AGUEROOOOO" goal in the last minute of the final game to snatch the league from Manchester United.

Super Mario continued his image as a trouble maker, influenced by the media there were stories of fireworks being let off in his house, late night curries the night before a match, trips to the shops that resulted in buying a trampoline, darts being thrown at youth players, handing out cash when Man City won, a visit to a sixth form to use the toilet and even a rap song written for him. Mario Balotelli became something of an entertainer, despite him hating the coverage that surrounded his personal life.

Mario was still a child in some senses, adopted by Italians but originally the son of Ghanaian immigrants, Balotelli had to do some growing up. He needed a father figure in football and they came in two forms, his formidable agent Mino Raiola (who worked wonders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and his Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini. Mancini first came across Balotelli whilst at Inter and developed a connection with him quickly, as he said "I saw myself in him". FourFourTwo in April 2013 covered their special relationship, best described as a father and son relationship with Mancini commentating that he saw Mario "like another one of my children".

The legendary Gre-No-Li
The pair loved each other this perhaps explains why we saw them grab each other by the throat during Man City training. An odd way of showing it you ask? Well for me it shows that they did, Mancini is a professional, the fact he reacted like that to Mario and then continued their relationship after shows they cared, like brothers scrapping. However Balotelli's time in the Premier League came to an end in January 2013 when AC Milan purchased him for €20m. He was given a heroes welcome and his potential link up with M'Baye Niang and Stephen El Shaarawy was likened to the Rossoneri legendary trio of Gre-No-Li from the 1950s.

Balotelli had his dream move to Milan, the red and black half of the city. Everyone at the Italian giants were delighted with the deal, Vice-President Adriano Galliani saying: "Balotelli in Rossoneri is a dream that has been realized. It is a transfer that everyone wanted: club, president and fans." The police were called in to bring calm to Ristorante Giannino, the restaurant where Milan deals were thrashed out and Mario met Galliani. A scuffle broke out with excited fans, 6 arrests were made but Mario was home and he netted 12 Serie A goals in just 13 games between January and the end of the season.

The issue was, Milan were in a slump as a club and despite 14 goals in 30 Serie A ties last season, Mario couldn't prevent an 8th placed finish that saw Max Allegri sacked and Clarence Seedorf risk his legendary Milan reputation to take the reigns. Seedorf left at the end of the season and fellow icon Pippo Inzaghi took over. He wished to revamp Milan and set about changing the way things were which meant Mario Balotelli became available for transfer. Liverpool had sold Luis Suarez and perhaps needed to bring in a big name after splashing the cash but on no really superstars. A £16m (€20m) fee was sorted and just like that Mario was back in the Premier League. That brings up to where we are, the 2014/15 season with a Liverpool who finished 2nd last year now struggling, leaking goals and not scoring many of their own either. He quickly won Liverpool fans over with some of his Tweets that included: "Man Utd... LOL" following their 5-3 defeat to Leicester City.

The tweet saw him hounded by fans and pundits once more, some disgracefully of a racial nature. Mario Balotelli though is not a stranger to racism, the 33 capped Italian has faced it wherever he has gone. In Italy the stands abuse him, on international duty it is the same and whilst Britain can attempt to take the high ground, Twitter abuse by Brits shows people here are just the same. 

Andrea Pirlo has written about the racism Super Mario faces: "I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet, but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds. They’re a truly horrendous bunch, a herd of frustrated individuals who’ve taken the worst of history and made it their own. And they’re more than just a minority, despite what certain mealy-mouthed spin doctors would have you believe. Those guys would use a fire extinguisher to put out a match." 
Pirlo is protective over his friend Mario

Pirlo continues: "Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and that he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you’. He’s often targeted and insulted by opposition fans. Let’s say that the way he goes about his business perhaps doesn’t help him get much love, but I’m still convinced that if he was white, people would leave him in peace... He’ll react to provocation on the pitch, but doesn’t let what’s going on in the crowd affect him. If he scores, he might put his finger to his lips to mock the opposition fans, something that really infuriates them, but if they tell him he’s got the wrong colour of skin he’ll simply laugh in their faces. He makes complete fools of them and emerges a convincing winner. The way I see it, he’s capable of becoming a symbol of the fight against racism, both in Italy and throughout the world." 

On the pitch though Balotelli has had it tough, he is yet to score in the Premier League for the Reds and his only goal has come against tiny Champions League opponents Ludogorets. He has taken 30 shots in the league, 9 on target without scoring. 46 shots in all coming in a Liverpool shirt but worse than that he has been criticised for being a lazy waste of space. Fair in some respects considering a player of his reputation. I truly believe though that the scapegoating of Balotelli has begun. Liverpool have been terrible at the back, Mignolet is not worthy of his place between the sticks, Brendan Rodgers has not signed well enough and Daniel Sturridge's injury following Suarez's sale has decimated Liverpool. 

Balotelli tore Germany apart in the Euro 2012 Semi-Final, it's his go to performance that shows his true class but it has lacked for Liverpool. Last night against Madrid was not his worst game for the Reds by a long way, Head Coach Carlo Ancelotti said he caused them some of their most dangerous problems but the shirt swap has now become the issue. Despite it happening (rightly or wrongly) up and down the country each week. Yes it was at half time but Steven Gerrard has been caught doing it too, it problem for Mario is that he is Mario and whatever he does is analysed or more accurately criticised.

Balotelli heavily criticised after Liverpool v Real Madrid

Liverpool knew what they were buying when Mario Balotelli signed on the dotted line this summer. James Milner has recently admitted that when he is left out of a squad he says nothing, he never complains about being benched and he never moans or makes a fuss. Mario Balotelli is not your James Milner in terms of his attitude, he's not your Luis Suarez in terms of his work-rate and on pitch desire. To expect 90 minutes of running from him is ludicrous because at 24-years-old he has never done it and never will, if it did it would hurt his game. Against Real Madrid as an example, he was drawn out wide seeking the ball and then sent in a cross to 5ft 7in Raheem Sterling. Maybe the answer lies in pairing him with a fit Daniel Sturridge when he returns, this was the dream with Niang and El Shaarawy at Milan, Sturridge would certainly improve Mario's game.

Does Mario Balotelli have a problem to sort? Of course he does he is a child at times, he can be lazy and sometimes his attitude doesn't endear himself to the fans or the media. Do Liverpool have a problem to sort? Of course they do, but it's not all about Mario. Rodgers has to fix his defence first and foremost, he has to fix Daniel Sturridge secondly and he has to get his squad playing football again. Mario will slot in, that's what he does. You cannot ask Mario to lead the line on his own, even more so he can't lead a squad that looks at times broken. You paid £16m for Super Mario, this means you paid £16m for the good times but you also paid £16m for the headaches he brings!

The good times will come for Mario at Liverpool

Gareth Thomas - TFHB (Follow me on Twitter: @GJ_Thomas & @TFHBs and 'Like' our Facebook)

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