Saturday 20 January 2018

Mario Balotelli shock: A winning goal and a smile

Mario Balotelli posted a smiling selife on Instagram after his first Premier League goal for Liverpool
Mario Balotelli posted a smiling selife on Instagram after his first Premier League goal for Liverpool

Chris Bascombe

“Seeing is Believing” was the sponsor’s logo on Liverpool’s jersey.

It was a noble gesture for one night only against Spurs – raising awareness for a charity assisting the blind – but it proved doubly apt as Mario Balotelli defied expectations and six months of exasperation to be the matchwinner against Tottenham.

Yes, this really was Balotelli scoring what might become one of the most important goals of Liverpool’s season. His 83rd-minute diversion of Adam Lallana’s cross has shifted momentum Anfield’s way in the hunt for a Champions League place.

There have been times when Brendan Rodgers has sent on the Italian you would swear he was making a sign of the cross and muttering several Hail Marys.

He has rolled the dice so often when using Balotelli, it was tempting to offer the number of gamblers’ anonymous, or at the very least organise an intervention to prevent a repeat offence.

This time Balotelli ensured Rodgers cashed in. It was not just his most significant league goal for Liverpool, it was his only league goal for Liverpool. The watching club owner, John W. Henry, must have wondering where all the negativity surrounding the striker had come from.

Mario didn’t celebrate, of course. He never does. As ecstasy spread across the stadium, Balotelli was unmoved and walked off.

So often he is perceived as a circus act, but he likes to present himself as a straight man. When things are going wrong it wears thin. On nights like this his qualities are endearing. He’ll need several more telling contributions to make amends for previous non-descript performances, but at least he’s played some part.

 How Liverpool needed it having twice been pegged back by Mauricio Pochettino’s much improved side.

Inevitably, Harry Kane struck again. Spurs play and Kane scores. They might as well start printing it on the match tickets. Spurs were impressive and will not leave Anfield with long-term symptoms of depression.

“I am disappointed but also proud of the effort from the players,” said Pochettino.

“In football you need to lucky to get some points and I think we were unlucky.

“The performance was good. We played to win the game so it is a shame and I thought we deserved more.”

The positives were plentiful for Pochettino. Kane struck his 23rd goal of the season, a 15th minute equaliser after Lazar Markovic had rewarded early Liverpool momentum. Mousa Dembele would later cancel out Steven Gerrard’s penalty in the second half.

The game bore similarities to those famous games here in the late 90s between Liverpool and Newcastle, where it was surprising when an attack did not lead to a goal.

Much of this was due to errors, with Spurs especially vulnerable in the early stages. Spurs’ centre-half duo of Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier seemed to hear sirens every time Daniel Sturridge closed them down.

It was flawed defensively at both ends, but entertaining for it. Ryan Mason sent Sturridge clear on the ninth minute with the kind of weighted pass the striker would have expected from one of his own team mates. Sturridge still visibly rusty snatched at his shot, striking tamely at Lloris, although he forced the Frenchman to display his reflexes four minutes later with the kind of trademark effort that bruises the air as much as the goalkeeper’s fingers.

Jordan Ibe, catching the attention once again in wing back role, was a consistent provider. Danny Rose was put in a spin so often he must have felt nauseous by full-time. Rodgers - who headed to Italy on a scouting mission immediately after the game - may have eased the teenager into his line-up but he is offering every indication he will take some shifting.

Liverpool took the lead on 15 minutes with the kind of long ball move that might provoke a Louis Van Gaal dossier. Mignolet picked out Sturridge with his goal kick, and the striker’s attempts to control were diverted by Vertonghen to Markovic. The Serbian’s shot was tame but Lloris was beaten by a bobble. It was a rare blemish for an outstanding goalkeeper.

Spurs responded by taking control of midfield. Liverpool looked more exposed in the enforced absence of Lucas and the mistakes flowed from the red shirts as Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamala and, inevitably, Kane took the initiative.

The trio combined for a 26th minute equaliser, the Dane and the Argentine exchanging passes and feeding Kane, who emphatically beat Mignolet with assistance from Mamadou Sakho’s slip.

 Such vulnerabilities continued to be the source of entertainment, with

Spurs’ appetite for self-destruction again demonstrated when Rose gifted Liverpool a 53rd minute penalty for tripping Sturridge. Gerrard stepped forward, and although Lloris guessed right the strike was too powerful. Eriksen's set-piece skills and Kane's initiative then created another equaliser for Dembele.

There was craftwork and recklessness throughout, but Emre Can drove his side forward in the closing stages. The young German looks like a future captain in waiting and took the man-of-the-match bubbly. He won it as much as Balotelli.

Mario probably didn’t want it anyway, but at least he has a champagne moment to reflect on at Anfield. Finally.

Telegraph.co.uk

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