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Smith: Strikers must step up

Burnley 2 hours ago
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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin
Aug 24, 2014

Balotelli returns to Eastlands spotlight

"Mario, always Mario," former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini would smile as he fielded the latest question on his compatriot. Why always him? When Mario Balotelli was a City player, he was almost always the centre of attention. Now he is either Liverpool's problem or, it is hoped at Anfield, their latest inspiration.

Such is the sensation of Balotelli's move to Merseyside that he has managed to overshadow a meeting of the Premier League's top two from last season, an early chance to settle old scores or even bandage weeping sores. Steven Gerrard might be breathing a sigh of some relief. The Italian's arrival from Milan dulls talk about not letting things slip.

Balotelli's ineligibility for Monday's match will likely bring the focus back towards Liverpool's captain, even if the new signing will have cameras trained on him all night. The home fans will almost certainly -- and loudly -- remind Gerrard of the mistake against Chelsea that handed the whip hand to their club. It was in the aftermath of Liverpool's 3-2 victory over City that Gerrard made his infamous impassioned demand of his teammates.

At Anfield in April, Liverpool won the match of the season through a Philippe Coutinho goal that denied a thunderous City comeback. Liverpool seemed unstoppable, only for Gerrard to falter as Demba Ba and Chelsea stole in on his stumble. Eventual delight for City, the pain of sky-high hopes dashed for Liverpool, it will live long in the memories of both sets of fans, but the managers must embrace reset mode. As recent as such events are, a new campaign is already upon them.

"We are just starting this season -- last season for us is finished," said City manager Manuel Pellegrini, typically downbeat at his Friday news conference. "We are not thinking any more about what happened last season. Different games, different moments. It is very important to start winning our points at home."

"We'll go to Man City with no fear, as we've done before," said Brendan Rodgers for his part on Friday. "We'll attack the game. The nature of both teams is the offensive game, but they're normally tight games."

Rodgers was recalling his team's last visit to Eastlands, where, in defeat, Liverpool announced themselves as a huge threat to City's super-strength squad. It was the Boxing Day night that Rodgers invoked an FA ban for questioning the local origins of referee Lee Mason. Liverpool's manager could not contain his frustration at the ruling out of a Raheem Sterling goal for an incorrect offside, although much of the manager's fury lay in the knowledge that his team had been much the better one and still suffered defeat.

A Simon Mignolet error to allow Alvaro Negredo to score on half-time was the deciding moment, and a rampant Sterling could not find the goal his excellence deserved. It was a night the teenager looked the real deal, a key player for Liverpool, a role that in the absence of Luis Suarez -- and at Eastlands, Balotelli -- he must continue to fulfill, in tandem with Daniel Sturridge, who has proved much to the club who let him leave as a teenager.

"Raheem is a kid who has propelled himself on to another level," said Rodgers this week.

Scoring Liverpool's first goal of the season against Southampton on Sunday set Sterling on his way to surpassing the 10 goals he grabbed in 2013-14, which included the opener against City in April that further exposed the flowering of his talent. A dart into the heart of City's defence, a sure-footed change of feet and a drilled finish past Joe Hart made Liverpool fans dream.

Raheem Sterling will need to continue his development as one of Liverpool's most important attacking players, regardless of the arrival of Mario Balotelli.

Supplying the assist for that opening goal was Suarez, whom Balotelli will undoubtedly be compared to, as a maverick talent needing to be harnessed. Rodgers and Liverpool hope that Sterling and Sturridge's development will not be adversely affected by the arrival of a player who provides similar distractions to Suarez, although without the Uruguayan's unstinting endeavour. Balotelli, hardly known as the most diligent trainer, will present a different challenge to Rodgers' rigorous preparations for matches.

"I know the character of Mario Balotelli -- everyone that is involved in football knows about him," noted Pellegrini wryly of a player sold before his arrival in Manchester.

"With every player we assess and look at, of course, character is very important, and no player would come here if I felt it couldn't work," Rodgers explained, as his news conference was swamped by questions about Balotelli, something Liverpool's manager will probably have to get used to.

"If I feel someone cares enough, I will give them everything, and thankfully we have a culture here that creates talents and gives them the opportunity to blossom."

Suarez, like Sturridge and Sterling, provided significant evidence of Rodgers' ability to draw results from talents other managers might struggle with. To go one better than last season, a gamble is being made on a player City were happy to rid themselves of in January 2013. Monday might be the last time that Balotelli is not the centre of Liverpool attention.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.

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