Like that moment you touch your pocket to realise that in fact you haven’t lost your phone, the relief carved into Brendan Rodgers’ mannerisms when Mario Balotelli found the back of the net last night against Tottenham Hotspur was resoundingly evident.
Not only did it mark the end of a Premier League goal-drought that has lasted since January 2013 - alright, we’ve been a little naughty there - but it also silenced those critics who would have had the knives out for Rodgers had Balotelli produced yet another abject display.
To describe his time on Merseyside as a disappointment doesn’t do justice to the feelings held by those who celebrated his arrival. An unplayable talent on his day, the fact that it has taken the Italian seven months to do what it took the likes of Diego Costa and Graziano Pelle just one month to do in England’s top flight is frankly ridiculous.
Ever an opinion-splitting character, fans have been subjected to none of Balotelli’s usual hijinks since his Anfield introduction. The dart-throwing, money-offering, firework-lighting bad boy that promises the sort of persona every press room dreams of has been left in Milan. This year the 24-year-old is all about a studious work-ethic and commitment to the cause. Perhaps that’s why his faltering form is even more puzzling.
Of course he’s hardly been helped by the reputation Luis Suarez left behind. The Uruguayan’s 31 league goals last season blazed a trail all but impossible to follow, and as Liverpool’s attempt to replicate their blistering phenom that was last term’s showcase has fallen off the track, so, apparently, has Balotelli’s confidence.
And yet there is light at the end of the tunnel. For those of you wondering, no, I’m not just basing this on the fact that he tapped in from four-yards last night. I’m basing it on the fact that I still believe Balotelli is a bag of potential waiting to be let out, and with his whimsical attitude seemingly firmly behind him, there’s very little stopping him from reaching the levels Roberto Mancini clearly believed he was capable of when he purchased him for Manchester City in 2011.
Cause for optimism
His failings in front of goal this term certainly haven’t been born out of a lack of effort, that’s for sure. In his 13 Premier League appearances he’s had a total of 48 shots. At an average of 3.69 a game that’s more than both Danny Welbeck and Radamel Falcao - who have featured 17 and 15 times respectively.
With Daniel Sturridge now on his way back there’s genuine optimism that Liverpool can finish the season with a flurry; if Balotelli is firing on all cylinders then a top four place could be within reach.
In a Premier League season that has been as unpredictable as any in recent years there’s few teams who occupy the positions in the top half of the table that the bookmakers would have pencilled prior to the campaign’s start. Currently Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United stand between them and a top four finish, whilst Southampton’s seat in third-placed is also viably within reach.
Of that quarter the Reds are still to play Southampton away later this month, whilst they host United in March just one fixture before travelling to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal.
One issue left to fix
In recent games, particularly their two Capital One Cup semi-final meetings with league leaders Chelsea, they look to have ironed out the blatant defensive deficiencies in their game, meaning they could be one prolific scorer away from presenting a challenge to those above them similar to the one they extended last season.
That man may well be Sturridge, whose timely return will afford them an excellent boost heading into the final 13 games. It could also be rising sensation Raheem Sterling, obviously invigorated after his ten-day break. Then again it could be Balotelli, who might just prove to be the difference between the Reds getting European football for a second successive season or not.
As he’s shown in snatches in the past, most notably at Euro 2012 and during City’s title-winning campaign of 2011/12, he’s a class act on his day. If last night proves to be the start of a healthy run of form, Rodgers will have reason to retain the demeanour of a relieved man for a long-time yet.
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