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Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers must treat Mario Balotelli as an adult

Date

Paul Hayward

Liverpool's new signings Mario Balotelli (R) and Adam Lallana (L) watch on during the loss to Manchester City earlier this week.

Liverpool's new signings Mario Balotelli (R) and Adam Lallana (L) watch on during the loss to Manchester City earlier this week. Photo: Reuters

The way this is going, social services are going to meet on Merseyside to discuss the Mario Balotelli conundrum. Police, psychologists and council experts will convene with tea and biscuits to discuss what the city can do to control a young man so profoundly troubled that he once let off a firework in his own bathroom.

Plainly, Liverpool has not faced such a challenge to public order since the Derek Hatton era, or when Luis Suarez was trying to eat people.

Balotelli, we know, does crazy things, such as drive round in expensive sports cars at odd hours of the night, and go to curry houses 48 hours before games. Radical.

Here comes trouble. But does it really? Balotelli is an eccentric, a free spirit, a sulker, an outsider and occasionally a violent tackler. He is clearly a complete mystery to the type of coach who wants to dragoon him into a "collective". Jose Mourinho called him "uncoachable" and Roberto Mancini grappled with him on the training ground. If there is one good piece of advice to Brendan Rodgers, based on past evidence, it is: don't try to behave like his dad, or his saviour, because he sees right through people who think of him as a project.

Liverpool's view of Balotelli is bound to be skewed by the Suarez saga, which is the unavoidable backdrop to Super Mario's £16 million move from Milan back to the north-west of England. This calculated gamble on (intermittent) world-class talent was bound to be seen as Liverpool importing another 'problem player' just weeks after losing the Count Dracula of Uruguay to Barcelona.

The two stories need not converge, though Balotelli will undoubtedly bring distractions. Rodgers, his manager, was clearly joking when he replied "trouble" to a live TV question about what Balotelli would bring to Anfield; but he would be wise not to plant in his new striker's head the idea that he will be seen by Liverpool's coaching staff as nitroglycerine in a No. 45 shirt.

"It's a family club with strong family values, and, as I said, behaviour is very important here," Rodgers said. Fair enough. Clear message. And: "He's a very bright boy. He was very clever. He understood where he's at this stage of his career and he knows himself that this is probably his last chance." No harm in that either, though Balotelli might dispute the idea that Liverpool are doing him any kind of favour, given his modest purchase price, and his 30 goals in 54 appearances for AC Milan.

No: Rodgers set the bar at its maximum when he said of Balotelli that he could "help him improve as a person". You know what he means. Yet something tells me Liverpool should steer clear of pastoral missions and just treat Balotelli like any other footballer, because the signs are that he is not looking for a wing to be taken under.

A Champions League winner at 19, and league title holder in England and Italy, Balotelli has refused to respond to the patriarchal strictures of Mourinho and Mancini, but seemed happier, at times, in the Italy squad of Cesare Prandelli, where he was neither indulged nor constantly leaned on.

At Milan, Massimiliano Allegri, the coach from 2012-2014, expressed his real value to Liverpool, regardless of how many times he scores: helping Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to prosper, by hounding centre-backs in the No.9 position.

Allegri also described his enduring weakness as a team player. "I think Balotelli gives his very best when he plays alone in attack and does not need to go back into midfield to receive the ball, wasting energy," Allegri said. "He is one of the best footballers in the world in this role. He only needs to learn to play more for the team. Potentially he is a world-class player but he needs to improve some aspects of his game and needs to do it quickly because he is not a child any more."

Granted, a prurient fascination in Balotelli's life off the field is inevitable. He has caused it to be so. But the big question for Rodgers is not whether his new signing will give a homeless man in Bootle £500 through the window of a Lamborghini (expect much fresh mythology on the grapevine).

It is whether Balotelli is actually an elite striker or simply overrated; a natural successor to Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Suarez or a permanently alienated narcissist who just cannot commit himself to a group endeavour.

Finding out will be fun. But Balotelli is nobody's psychological case study. At 24 he either signs up to what Liverpool are trying to do or fills a gap before Rodgers finds a more reliable replacement for Suarez. There is enough conformity around for us to be able to handle this much "trouble".

The Telegraph, London

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