Football: Game's not over for Super Mario

Football: Game's not over for Super Mario
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli warms up before the match against Chelsea.

FIFTH ROUND

CRYSTAL PALACE 1

(Fraizer Campbell 15)

LIVERPOOL 2

(Daniel Sturridge 49, Adam Lallana 58)

His arrival at Anfield last August came under the scrutiny of a magnifying glass.

By the end of the year, Mario Balotelli was a wreck, his confidence torn to shreds. As the goodwill eroded, so did his standing among Liverpool fans.

At his lowest ebb, he couldn't even trap a ball, let alone deliver what he's paid to do - score goals.

But, Liverpool's sudden turnaround has coincided with Balotelli's return to form.

Of course, Daniel Sturridge has stolen some of the spotlight. And why not.

In his first match for five months, Sturridge scored, just 12 minutes after coming on as a substitute against West Ham.

In his first start on his comeback trail, in a thrilling 3-2 home win over Tottenham Hotspur last week, he earned a crucial penalty.

Then yesterday morning (Singapore time), Sturridge scored the equalising goal in a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace that put the Reds into the last eight of the FA Cup.

Anfield is only too happy to welcome back their golden boy with open arms.

Finally, the Reds are showing shades of last season's brilliance.

But, Balotelli made a difference.

Somehow, amid his nightmare, the striker has regained his mojo.

The spring in his step is back. The sharpness that Liverpool fans thought they would never see now adds another dimension to manager Brendan Rodgers' list of tactical plans.

No longer is he the player or substitute whom the Liverpool manager would begrudgingly slap onto the drawing board when desperate.

The 24-year-old Italy international banished a huge psychological barrier in the match against Spurs, netting the winning goal - his first for Liverpool in the Premier League - seven minutes from time.

Yesterday, he was thrown into the fray at half-time in a game which Liverpool were trailing.

His introduction gave Sturridge an extra yard of space in a tightly patrolled Palace penalty box. Once Balotelli took up position just behind Sturridge, Palace's defensive shape began to look more stretched.

Four minutes after he came on, Sturridge scored.

RESURGENCE

With the England striker back, and Balotelli seemingly on the brink of a resurgence, Liverpool's lack of cutting edge in front of goal in the first half of the season may be quickly forgotten.

Balotelli had a hand in Adam Lallana's winning strike too, as it was his thunderous free-kick that came off the goalkeeper for the midfielder to latch on to.

As Palace opened up to chase the game, Balotelli's excellent hold-up play became even more important.

The opponents' attempts to rile him up proved futile. He was at his best in body and mind.

Rodgers must be hoping that the months in the doldrums has set him straight.

The signs look promising. Balotelli has always been a man of impeccable timing.

Just when one thought his Anfield career had ground to a halt, he seems to have found a new lease of life.

LIVERPOOL ON RED-HOT FORM

He's been working really hard in training. I think now the penny has dropped... He's got big quality. In the last couple of games, he's come off the bench and been effective for us. - Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, on striker Mario Balotelli.


This article was first published on Feb 16, 2015.
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