Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti offered a stern defence of under fire Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli on the eve of the crucial Champions League clash between the sides at the Santiago Bernabeu.
he Italian’s lack of goals since his £16m move from AC Milan has seen him singled-out for criticism following Liverpool’s sluggish start to the Premier League season. Brendan Rodgers’ side have won just four league games all season and only one of their last four in all competitions, a 2-1 League Cup win over Swansea City which saw the former Manchester City forward score his only domestic goal so far this campaign.
Luis Suarez’s 31 Premier League goals, which saw him share the European Golden Boot award with Cristiano Ronaldo, made the Anfield club title contenders last season but Balotelli has so far failed to plug the gap left by the controversial Uruguayan, who completed a £75m move to Barcelona in the summer.
Ancelotti has labelled Balotelli as a threat to his side ahead of Tuesday night’s European clash in the Spanish capital, however, and says the criticism aimed at the Italian international is unfair.
“There’s too much talk about Balotelli,” he said. “He is a quality player but he is playing in a team that is suffering from the absence of some key players, a team that is missing the goals of Suarez. He is playing in a team that needs to change its style”.
The former Chelsea manager, who is in discussions with Madrid to extend his contract beyond 2016, also said he would not have punished Balotelli for swapping shirts with Pepe at half-time of the match at Anfield a fortnight ago, which finished 3-0 to the European champions.
“If Marcelo swapped shirts with someone at half-time tomorrow I would not sub him off for that,” he said.
Rodgers was fuming at Balotelli’s actions at Anfield and said he would deal with the matter internally. “We had an incident with a player last year and we did it internally,” he said after the match. “It is not something I stand for. If you want to do that, you do it at the end of the game. It is something I will deal with tomorrow.”
Madrid will qualify for the knockout stages with victory tomorrow night after three wins from as many matches but for Liverpool things are more desperate as they go into the fixture tied on three points alongside Ludogorets and Basel. Rodgers may well have a trick up his sleeve with Daniel Sturridge included in the Liverpool party travelling to the Spanish capital on Monday.
The 25-year-old missed the home clash with Madrid through a calf injury and was also expected to miss Tuesday’s game, as well as the weekend match against Chelsea. His return could come sooner than anticipated with Rodgers desperate for some extra firepower to combat Madrid’s free-scoring form.
A 4-0 victory at Granada on took Madrid’s winning streak to eleven in all competitions, the best run since Ancelotti joined the club, and took Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally to 17 league goals this season - four more than Liverpool have managed in total so far this season. The win also saw them leapfrog Barcelona at the top of La Liga for the first time this season.
Gareth Bale has been missing in recent weeks but the Welshman returned to full team training on Monday morning and Ancelotti says he could feature tomorrow night. “Bale is back from his injury and is fit and ready to play,” he said. “We have not yet decided if he will start the game, or come from the bench. I will take that decision tomorrow”. The Italian will not rush the former Tottenham Hotspur player back, with Spain under-21 international Isco in brilliant form in his place.
Dani Carvajal is expected to miss out after suffering a hamstring injury at the weekend, meaning Alvaro Arbeloa will again feature against his former club. Pepe is also a doubt and could be replaced by Raphael Varane at centre-back. The change could be the only one from the Madrid side that cruised to a 3-0 victory at Anfield last month.