Mario Balotelli has by most accounts played well in his last three appearances for Liverpool. A habitual presence in the top four of our own Man of the Match rankings since the Tottenham win, fans and pundits alike have spent the last week-and-a-half wondering if the real Mario Balotelli has finally arrived. It's not unreasonable that someone might put the question to the man who manages him, but Brendan Rodgers' answer was surprising to say the least.
"Well, if he works harder than when he came on, he will do," said Rodgers, adding that he was not overly impressed with the Italian's efforts against Besiktas despite Balotelli having slotted home the match's only goal to earn an important first-leg Europa League win. "We need to ensure that whatever level of the game we are playing at we have everyone working as a team and once we get the penalty he stops working. He needs to improve on that facet of his game to play in his position, rather than standing on the side of the football field.
"He has contributed by scoring the goal but that is what he is paid to do. He needs to keep that efficiency in his game and show that he can affect the team whether he is asked to play from the bench or from the start. In a different country and a different style of football that would be all that matters but in this team here it is more than that."
There is always room to improve deficiencies in a player's game, but the timing of Rodgers' comments is fairly baffling. On the back of three strong performances from the striker, including an assist and two game-winning goals, and with the gaffer having just said any fallout from the penalty controversy would be dealt with internally, it's mystifying why the manager would be so unnecessarily and very publicly critical of Balotelli at this particular time.
Rodgers' intent remains unclear, especially since criticism of all kinds generally seems to roll off Balotelli's back. More importantly, having just extinguished the flames from the penalty controversy by clearly outlining Liverpool's hierarchy of penalty takers, Rodgers seems to have quite purposely ignited another unnecessary drama ahead of Liverpool's visit to St. Mary's, neatly closing the loop on the "Mario Balotelli is a distraction" meme that is so popular with the media.
At least there's one thing Balotelli and Rodgers can agree on: strikers are paid to score goals.