Among the many questions that Mario Balotelli’s imminent move to Liverpool has raised, there is one intriguing subplot: how will he gel with Daniel Sturridge?
Sturridge and Luis Suarez formed a potent spearhead to Liverpool’s attack last season but, for all that they worked together, the two could never be described as friends; even when things went smoothly on the field, there was always the capacity for them to bicker.
During the summer, before England faced Uruguay in Sao Paulo, Brendan Rodgers acknowledged that his forwards ‘both want to be the king’ and, with Suarez soon out of the way, Sturridge could have assumed that he would become Anfield’s undisputed frontman.
Balotelli’s arrival, however, poses a new quandary. The 24-year-old, whose £16million move from AC Milan will be completed in the next 24 hours, possesses swagger and huge self-belief. Balotelli will see a stage that he wants to dominate.
It will, inevitably, pose a test of Rodgers’ man-management skills but, as he prepares his side for a crucial early showdown with Manchester City tonight, he is adamant the two forwards will not just work together but drive each other on.
Rodgers has reassured Sturridge since news broke of his interest in Balotelli and reminded him of the role he has played in taking Liverpool back into the Champions League. If this campaign is to unfold as Rodgers hopes, the leading strikers of England and Italy will need to deliver for him.
‘I have spoken to Daniel and just said how important he is to the team,’ said Rodgers. ‘The confidence I have in him has been shown in his performances and goals — 36 in 50. You are not doing that if you are not happy; happy with your life, happy with your football.‘
‘I have said repeatedly that Daniel is a top talent, but we need to have more than one top talent in here. He is a big player for us and that will remain. Dynamics are important, but I don’t worry because if you are a top player with a top mind then you want other top players.
‘If you are a top player and you are looking at another top player coming in then you will be thinking: “He can help us”. If you are a top player with a top mentality then you respond to the competition.
‘We can play a diamond (with two strikers). We played that eight times last year and won seven and we flipped to that last weekend (against Southampton). We can change systems and I need that flexibility. Also, if you look at Daniel’s injury record then he has missed a number of weeks through being injured. I need to ensure I have got the replacements if they are not on the pitch at the same time.’
Sturridge is among a group of players, including Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, whose contracts will be looked at in the coming months and he will have a central role to play this evening on his return to the Etihad Stadium.
While this collision will not determine the destination of the Barclays Premier League next May, it will be interesting to see how Liverpool compare with Manuel Pellegrini’s men after finishing two points behind them last season.
Liverpool have taken City to the wire on both their last visits to this part of Manchester — they were beaten 2-1 on Boxing Day and drew 2-2 the season before, having led in the closing stages — and Rodgers is quietly optimistic they can make a statement.
‘There is no doubt we are stronger,’ said Rodgers.
‘The competition in the squad is much greater and hopefully that will drive us on. Our squad is stronger but you show that on the field. ‘We have had good games against them and the last game (at Anfield, which Liverpool won 3-2) in April was fantastic. We’ve gone there and played really well the last couple of years but we want to come back with a better result.
‘Now I am happy with the team I send out each week, with the group of players I have, knowing the principles of the team, the work, the ethic, the mentality is there.
‘We are certainly in a much better place two years on. It feels like my team, absolutely, and the club itself has improved.’
Rodgers is considering handing new £12m defender Alberto Moreno a first start and the Spanish left-back is itching to be involved – primarily so he can lock horns with his former Sevilla team-mate Jesus Navas.‘I’ve been aching to have a chance to play against him,’ said Moreno, with a knowing smile. ‘That would be great. He’s like lightning and he’s also very unpredictable, which makes him very difficult to stop. I haven’t spoken to him since I came here but hopefully I will see him. I’d love to face him.’ – Daily Mail