Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge were last on the pitch together for Liverpool in August for the club’s first meeting of the season with Tottenham. It may have been a pairing that lacked the flair of Sturridge’s previous partnership with Luis Suarez, but there at least seemed to be some promise to it. Then, Sturridge fell injured and Balotelli, unable to score, fell out of favour.
They may not have played together this past Tuesday in Liverpool’s second meeting with Tottenham, but for the first time since August they both made an appearance in the same match. Sturridge, though showing clear signs of rust from his long injury layoff, got into good positions and created a number of quality chances. Balotelli, meanwhile, scored his first league goal. And so, again, there might seem some promise.
"It was important for Mario," said Sturridge of his not-quite strike partner’s first league goal after half a season of futility. "He’s been waiting for a while to break his duck and been working very hard in training, and now he has scored one in the league I am sure things will start to go his way. It’s not easy to settle into a new team with different people around you, and some people don’t ever take that into account."
Balotelli’s willingness to work hard has never been in question at Liverpool despite that he arrived at the club with something of a spotty reputation. What has been in question is whether he can develop the off the ball movement necessary to thrive in Liverpool’s quick passing game. It’s whether he can overcome an inclination to drop deep and build and instead push forward. It’s whether his shot selection can improve.
His appearance late against Tottenham this week was, in the end, just one appearance, but it was an appearance that at least showed signs of his having improved in those areas—and it was that improvement which saw him rewarded with his first league goal. It will take more than that to earn a regular starting role, but with Sturridge still working towards full fitness it should get him minutes against Crystal Palace, and maybe even a start.
If he impresses again on Saturday, Brendan Rodgers could have some interesting choices to make heading into a mid-week Europa League tie with Besiktas. Add in injuries to both Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard, and there could be a case for the club returning to two up top and the midfield diamond, and if that happens, Sturridge at least believes he and Balotelli have what it takes to forge an effective strike partnership.
"Of course we can get a good understanding going," said Sturridge. "I’d say I can play with any player, not just Mario, so whatever team the manager choses to put out I’ll do my best. I try to adapt to whoever I’m playing with to bring out the best in each other, and me and Mario click when we are playing together. I like playing with a partner and also on my own, so it’s all down to what the manager choses.
"In the Tottenham game in August I played a little different to on Tuesday because I know how Coutinho plays and he likes to thread balls through, so I have to play on the shoulder a bit more. With Mario I can move around and go into the wide areas because I know he will occupy the centre halves. It’s different, you play differently with different players, but I’m sure we will strike up a partnership. I have no doubts about that."