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Delayed Gratification

Until Liverpool fans get to see their beloved Daniel Sturridge partner the misfiring Mario Balotelli, surely the more excessively negative commentary about the Italian should be held in abeyance?

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You couldn't blame them. It WAS hilarious - the notion of all three of them actually, y'know, playing together. In the same team.
You couldn't blame them. It WAS hilarious - the notion of all three of them actually, y'know, playing together. In the same team.
Jamie McDonald

Never one to wilfully eschew the opportunity for a good moan, your scribbler has often spent many a paradoxically happy hour vacantly carping about whatever aspect of life's daily drudgery was proving most pestiferous. The older one gets, the more finely honed one's capacity to cavil becomes. The things that I find annoying are multifarious -- the reprehensible tailgating one encounters on motorways, the excessive price of a tuna panini in my favourite coffee shop, rudeness. Hell, even the very existence of Harry Redknapp has given me hours of kvetching material.

There comes a point, however, when one can see that to persist in a course of relentless negativity, is both soul-destroying and more difficult than the maintenance of balance. It stops being a therapeutic release and starts to become a tiresome state of being. Now, I'm not sure about you, dear reader, but even this curmudgeonly Irishman has had just about enough of the remorseless gloom-mongering that seems to have become de rigeur amongst the Liverpool chatterati in recent weeks.

One does not need  to possess a Holmesian knack for deduction to ascertain that there are multiple problems which have beset the manager and his squad since the season began, but to listen to some commentators, we have reached a Hodgsonian nadir. This is patently not the case, for whilst there have been mistakes and misfortune aplenty, Liverpool are still in touch with the top four, despite not performing to a level that reflects even a fraction of the potential that is clearly inherent in the players available to Brendan Rodgers.

The manager himself has rightly borne the brunt of much of the criticism for his stubborn refusal to play a second striker alongside Mario Balotelli. The upshot of this tactical obduracy on the part of the Antrim coach is that Balotelli, already apparently a less-than-favoured son, has been left to play a game to which he seems ill-suited and which makes him the focus of fan ire. The manager's faint praise about his work-rate will be scant consolation to the larger-than-life mohican fancier. Surely, however, the ample evidence provided by the addition of even the equally out-of-form Rickie Lambert for twenty minutes against Hull, will persuade Rodgers to try a partner with Balotelli against Swansea.

One of the manager's strengths last season was his capacity to learn from his mistakes, even if those lessons were occasionally forced upon him through adversity or dumb luck. It was heartening to see that he had a flexibility about him and that aside from his clear gifts as a coach, he was also that most important of things -- a lucky general. When the introduction of even the most hopelessly off-the-pace veteran can change your team's dynamic so dramatically, it would surely be folly to ignore that lesson and rigidly persist with a solitary spearhead. After all, even by his own admission,  Rodgers plan was to pair the burly Italian maverick with the sublimely talented, if maddeningly delicate Daniel Sturridge. Alas, that particular duo will not be seen together for some time yet and the Carnlough native can only lament the lack of his most potent attacking threat.

"Top players have such an influence on the team," Rodgers opined, not unreasonably. "When you are under the cosh, you know that you have strikers who can score out of nothing. It is a big weapon. Sturridge is one of them. That is where we aim to get with Daniel. When he comes back into the team, you will see the confidence because of the movement and the dynamic. We just have to work without and while we are doing that, we are staying up and around the top end of the table. Everyone can see our conditions are different to work in this season. The players are working their best."

Taking the pre-Capital One Cup press conference in lieu of his gaffer yesterday, Colin Pascoe was quick to downplay any talk of Sturridge being a long-term worry. Rodgers had not been particularly helpful recently when he betrayed a little frustration at the dancing striker's ongoing fitness issues and the Welshman was possibly sent in his stead to avoid any journalists grilling the manager in search of further revelations of his honest feelings on the topic. The renowned shorts enthusiast was calm and good humoured, however, and dismissed the notion that Sturridge's fragility was a real worry for the future.

"No, not at all," he averred. "He is a great pro, he looks after himself well and he has just been unfortunate. He has just been unlucky. He has picked up an injury, which has been well-documented. He was unlucky in that he came back and pulled his calf. We just have to wait for that now and hopefully get him back soon."

In the interim, it is likely that Liverpool will have to hope for Mario Balotelli to rediscover his scoring touch. Over the course of his professional career, more words have been devoted to the young Italian's mentality and attitude than to those of probably any other footballer. It is clear now, if it was not always glaringly obvious, that the forward was a late transfer window punt. So far, that gamble has not paid off but as suggested in these paragraphs earlier, the manager's deployment of his newest attacker is at least as much a reason for that as the player's own shortcomings. Andrea Pirlo, Balotelli's international teammate, advises Rodgers to be patient and show a little man-love to the number 45.

"The difference between other players and Mario is that every action he takes is going to be scrutinised," insisted the man with the most commented-upon face rug in modern football. "The media is interested in him, and things he does are going to be highlighted, where perhaps with other players they would not get such a reaction, or maybe even no reaction at all.

"There is no question over his talent," continued the midfield stroller. "I have played with him and I know how good he is and how good he can be. It is the job of the Liverpool coach to manage him in the right way. He needs to be loved, he needs direction, but most importantly he needs to know that the coach believes in him. If he spends time with Mario I know he can still go on and be a great player for Liverpool."

It is frivolously amusing to ponder how exactly Pirlo envisaged manager and player spending time with each other. A spot of paintball perhaps? A tour of the classy artisan's own vineyard maybe? Even if the bonding simply occurs in the altogether more prosaic surroundings of Melwood's training pitches, it is to be hoped that an improved level of trust and communication does develop between the two men. The immediate fate of Liverpool Football Club's season and the mental health of some of its more saturnine followers may depend upon it.

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