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Liverpool Bound Mario Balotelli Could Make The Difference In Premier League Title Race

Sean Hartnett

Sean Hartnett has covered the New York Rangers and the NHL for WFAN.com since 2011. He has covered two Stanley Cup Finals. Sean now contributes to XNSports’ NHL and general sports coverage. He devotes far too much of his free time watching Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns. Sean can be reached via Twitter @HartnettHockey.
Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli. USA Today Sports

Liverpool are on the verge of signing 24-year-old Italian national team striker Mario Balotelli for a bargain transfer fee.

According to Ben Smith of BBC Sport, the Reds have agreed to a £16 million ($26.5 million) permanent fee with A.C. Milan. Balotelli has already said his farewells to Milan teammates and staff. He will soon complete a medical at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to seal his move to the 18-time English top-flight champions.

Milan previously paid £19 million ($26.5 million) in January 2013 to sign Balotelli from Liverpool’s English rivals Manchester City. Balotelli scored 14 goals in 30 Serie A appearances for Milan last season.

Those are impressive statistics, especially given the low-scoring nature of Italian football and A.C. Milan’s recent struggles. The Rossoneri are going through a transitional period, finishing eighth in Serie A last season. He will now be surrounded by a collection of creative talents at Liverpool including Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana.

REDS ARE GETTING A REAL-DEAL TALENT, CAN THEY GET THE MOST OUT HIM?

Liverpool will have made a major coup once Balotelli is signed, sealed and delivered.

Having sold controversial world-class striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona for a reported £75 million pounds, it was imperative that the Reds recruited a top-class striker to ease the burden being placed on English striker Daniel Sturridge.

The presence of Balotelli will allow Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers to keep Sturridge fresh given Liverpool’s increased demands due to their return to Champions League play.

Sturridge has enjoyed remarkable success at Liverpool, scoring 36 goals in 50 appearances for the Reds. This is a greater goal-scoring ratio than past Liverpool greats including Suarez, Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres and Michael Owen. The only player in club history who has scored more goals than Sturridge in his first 50 games at the club is 19th century striker George Allan.

Balotelli has a reputation for being a poor trainer and sometimes openly sulks during games. When he’s at his best, Balotelli is one of the world’s most fearsome strikers and an absolute handful for opposing defenders. The big question is whether Rodgers can summon a consistent work ethic out of the enigmatic Italian. Rodgers has instilled a hard-working culture at Liverpool. Perhaps, the tremendous competition for places at Liverpool will force Balotelli to knuckle down and produce the best football of his career.

Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher has raised questions over whether Balotelli will be able to force his way into the Reds’ starting XI. Carragher recently spoke to Sky Sports News.

“Would he be the final piece of the jigsaw? Would he make the starting XI if everyone was fit and firing? Who knows? At the moment Daniel Sturridge has got 36 goals in 50 games for Liverpool and at this moment he is the main man up front,” Carragher said.

Rodgers is the sort of manager who understands how to manage personalities. The Northern Irishman was able to focus Suarez last season after the Uruguayan striker openly desired a move away from Anfield. Suarez was both prolific and well-behaved after he returned from a 10-game suspension for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic. The supremely-talented striker led the Premier League with 31 goals, despite missing the Reds’ first five league matches after serving the remainder of the ban. Suarez helped Liverpool to a second-place Premier League finish won a number of prestigious awards including the Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year and the European Golden Shoe.

Now, it’s up to Balotelli to play a key role as Liverpool hope to replicate last season’s title charge. Balotelli has helped past clubs to major trophies. His collection of powerful, technical and athletic qualities helped Inter Milan to three Serie A titles, one Champions League title, one Coppa Italia, one Supercoppa Italiana. At Manchester City, “Super Mario” lifted the Premier League title in 2011-12 and produced a Man of the Match performance as the Citizens captured the 2011 FA Cup over Stoke City.

Liverpool does not boast the exceptional squad depth of Man City, but the Reds will be able to field a very strong starting XI once Balotelli is eligible to make his debut.

Despite losing Suarez, Liverpool is now a far stronger team than the one that was beaten out by last season’s Premier League title-winners Man City. Rodgers will hope to have plugged Liverpool’s leaky defense by acquiring commanding central defender Dejan Lovren and Spanish wing-backs Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo. The Reds acquired a versatile playmaker in Lallana, a useful role player in striker Rickie Lambert and two promising young talents in German midfielder Emre Can and Serbian winger Lazar Markovic.

Liverpool’s roster looks like a near finished product on paper. Aside from perhaps signing an upgrade at backup keeper and adding a further depth striker, the Reds appear ready to go toe-to-toe with Man City and Chelsea in the Premier League title race.

“Super Mario” could make the difference in Liverpool winning their first top division title since 1990.

WHEN WILL ‘SUPER MARIO’ MAKE HIS LIVERPOOL DEBUT?

Balotelli will not be eligible to make his Liverpool debut against Man City on Monday. The Reds would have needed to register Balotelli with the Premier League by midday UK time in order for him to make his Liverpool debut against his former club. That deadline has passed.

He will instead debut against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, August 31 at White Hart Lane.

A LARGER THAN LIFE PERSONALITY

The British press is largely responsible for fabricating stories about Balotelli’s personal life and blowing his image out of proportion.

Balotelli has grown distrustful of the British media. He has even gone as far as posting this statement on his official Twitter bio: “Don’t believe anything you read about me unless (it’s) coming from here.”

The Italian has been branded by current Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho as “unmanageable” during their time together at Inter Milan. Balotelli told The Guardian in March 2012 that Mourinho is “a great manager but he doesn’t understand me.” He often clashed with former Man City manager Roberto Mancini. The duo had to be separated during a training ground fight weeks before Balotelli was sold to A.C. Milan. Both Balotelli and Mancini have since gone on to speak frequently about their love for one another.

Unlike Mourinho and Mancini, Rodgers is not an over-disciplinarian and encourages his players to express freedom on the pitch. Rodgers and Balotelli could prove to be a terrific match.

Balotelli will also benefit from being far away from some of Italy’s notoriously-racist fans. In May 2013, a match between A.C. Milan and Roma was suspended after Roma fans directed racist chants at Balotelli. Throughout his time in Italy, Balotelli was subjected to disgusting racist chants and some went as far as throwing inflatable bananas at him. Supporters of Balotelli’s former club Inter Milan waved and threw inflatable bananas at Balotelli in February 2013.

The 24-year-old has become more mature with age. He practices Buddhism and abstains from drinking alcohol. When interviewed by former Oasis guitarist and massive Man City fan Noel Gallagher, Balotelli described himself as a shy individual and spoke out against a number of false stories.

Let’s separate fact and fiction as a number of erroneous stories have enhanced Balotelli’s larger than life public image. Sports Illustrated ran a wide-ranging interview in August 2013 where Balotelli poured cold water on a number of false and exaggerated rumors.

TRUE:

–  In June 2010, Balotelli and a group of friends fired off air pistols in Milan’s Piazza della Repubblica.

– When Balotelli was stopped by Manchester police after a 2010 car crash, Balotelli was asked by police why he was carrying £5,000 in his back pocket. Balotelli reportedly replied: “Because I am rich.”

– In October 2010, Balotelli was questioned by Italian police after driving into the grounds of a women’s prison. Balotelli later said he went to the prison to “have a look around.”

– He accidentally set off fireworks in his former home one day prior to the Manchester derby. The next day, Balotelli scored twice as the Citizens beat rivals Man United 6-1. He famously revealed a t-shirt with the phrase ‘Why Always Me?’ after scoring the match’s opening goal.

– Balotelli bought a quad bike and a trampoline after his mother sent him to English department store John Lewis to buy an ironing board.

– He parked his Bentley outside Xaverian College in Manchester in January 2012 and asked permission to use the school’s bathroom facilities.

FALSE:

– Balotelli did not run up £10,000 in parking fines after abandoning his £100,000 Maserati outside Manchester’s San Carlo restaurant in April 2011.

– Balotelli claims he did not throw a dart a Manchester City youth team member as part of a prank. Either way, he was fined £100,000 by the club in March 2011.

– He did not give £2,500 to a homeless man after leaving a casino in the early hours of the morning.

– Balotelli was wrongully accused of having connections with the Italian mafia. He does not have connections with the Italian mafia association known as “The Cammora.” Balotelli was spotted near Cammora gangsters while visiting friends in Naples. He has never been arrested in his life and testified in a court case involving The Cammora.

– He did not confront a bully after asking why a young boy had shown up outside Manchester City’s training ground on a school day.

WEEK TWO PREMIER LEAGUE PREDICTIONS:

Last week’s predictions can be viewed here.

NEWCASTLE AT ASTON VILLA (Saturday, 7:45 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Newcastle 1-1 Aston Villa.

LEICESTER CITY AT CHELSEA (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Chelsea 3-1 Leicester.

BURNLEY AT SWANSEA CITY (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Swansea 1-0 Burnley.

WEST HAM AT CRYSTAL PALACE (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: West Ham 1-1 Palace.

WEST BROM AT SOUTHAMPTON (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Southampton 2-1 West Brom.

ARSENAL AT EVERTON (Saturday, 12:30 PM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Arsenal 1-0 Everton.

STOKE CITY AT HULL CITY (Sunday, 8:30 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Stoke 1-1 Hull.

QPR AT TOTTENHAM (Sunday, 8:30 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Spurs 2-1 QPR.

MAN UNITED AT SUNDERLAND (Sunday, 11:00 AM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Man United 2-2 Sunderland.

LIVERPOOL AT MANCHESTER CITY (Monday, 3:00 PM Eastern Time)

Prediction: Man City 2-1 Liverpool.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s Premier League column and predictions. Check back next Friday for Week 3 predictions. Cheers!