Never before have the words “a bit disrespectful” caused a meltdown in sport of this scale.
As soon as that short phrase slipped out of Steven Gerrard’s mouth in the aftermath of Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Besiktas, the inevitable storm clicked into gear and the tag of ‘villain’ was once again slapped on Mario Balotelli.
Only this time, the Italian had done little wrong.
Balotelli neatly tucked home the winning penalty at Anfield late on Wednesday evening, an incident made juicer given he had boldly plucked the ball from the grasp of stand-in skipper Jordan Henderson just moments before.
And yet this was completely different to the incident that unravelled across Stanley Park in January, when Kevin Mirallas personally promoted himself above Leighton Baines in the Everton pecking order before blasting his spot-kick wide. On that occasion, it was seemingly about Mirallas’ ego and his personal quest to impress Europe’s biggest clubs during the January transfer window. The match finished goalless; the Belgian was ripped apart.
Baines was Everton’s undisputed first-choice penalty taker that night at Goodison – a title that will never be bestowed upon Henderson at Liverpool. The Europa League is now an alternative route back into the Champions League, with the Reds quite capable of going all the way to Warsaw in May. Henderson simply had to relinquish penalty duty. And he did, reluctantly.
27 - Mario Balotelli has scored 27 of his 29 penalties for club and country (incl. shootouts). Super.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe)
Balotelli had to take that penalty, he's the best at it. No point for anybody else to get involved.— Didi Hamann (@DietmarHamann)
Balotelli is among the finest penalty takers on the planet for one simple reason: he is not fazed by high-pressure situations. Scoring from 12 yards, for professional footballers, is relatively straight-forward. Nerves and mind games are what make it such a daunting task. In Balotelli, Liverpool possess a master of composure in this scenario and arguably one better suited to the role than Mr Gerrard himself.
GRAPHIC: How Mario Balotelli stacks up against Europe’s top penalty takers
And yet the studio bound skipper, who was injured, still elected to castigate his team-mate on national television. Hardly the actions of a captain.
"Jordan should have taken the penalty. Rules are rules. It should have been Henderson. Mario has been a bit mischievous," the former England captain said on ITV.
"It's not nice to see when players are taking it off each other and stuff, for me, rules are rules and codes are codes inside a dressing room and when a manager selects a penalty taker that player should take it.
"Credit to Mario, he's scored, but it's not nice to see when footballers are arguing. I think Jordan has handled the situation very well. He can see that Mario really wanted to score. Jordan walked away at the right moment and handled his post-match interview very well.
"Jordan is the captain and Mario showed Jordan a bit of disrespect there, but he's scored a very important goal. I think six or seven players would have wanted to take that penalty so if they all say they are taking it, what happens then? Rules are in place for a reason."
It’s more than a shade hypocritical for Gerrard to say “rules are in place” and then break football’s code of honour by crushing his team-mate on TV – especially since he waded into the debate without first contacting his manager or either player for context. He may be captain, and a great one at that, but Brendan Rodgers speaks for the club, particularly on recent and controversial events. The Northern Irishman’s decision to play down the row in his post-match interview suggests his disapproval at Gerrard’s hasty opinion
Gerrard let his one-off punditry outing take precedence over his role as Liverpool captain. With Balotelli belatedly starting to show glimpses that he may yet possess some useful attributes, the timing was terrible and hinted at underlying disharmony in the dressing room.
Balotelli being done over on telly by his captain after scoring a winning penalty must be final proof he genuinely can't win.— Nick Miller (@NickMiller79) February 19, 2015
Of course, he was probably encouraged to spew rash views. His job for the night was studio pundit and he certainly fulfilled his temporary job description with a stream of strong opinions. He engaged fans in an otherwise uneventful clash and, for the neutral, his words were refreshing in an industry that revolves on endless clichés.
What damage will they cause to Balotelli, though, who continues to rub shoulders with his skipper at Melwood on a daily basis? The mercurial striker exudes a fearless exterior, but it’s hardly what he needs as he tries to prove he has talent to add to his likable showmanship.
He shone in a no-win situation – score and be criticised; miss and bid farewell to his Anfield career. In many ways it was a reckless act to snatch the ball off Henderson, but also a necessary one given his unflappable ability from 12 yards and the importance of the match.
Pressure pen late in a big European game you want your best man on it. Balotelli was that man!— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) February 19, 2015
Gerrard even acknowledged such in August: “I’m aware he’s a terrific penalty taker. I’m sure he’ll get the chance to take some penalties for the club. The manager’s told me if I’m not on the pitch he’ll take them.”
It’s easy to criticise when Balotelli strolls around the pitch, staring forlornly at his team-mates, and fires the occasional shot at goal from a ridiculous distance. So when he displays an interest in helping transform Liverpool’s fortunes – as he has since his match-winning goal against Tottenham – it must be encouraged. The sweeping support he’s received since Gerrard’s outburst shows that the tide is turning.
Balotelli's class response on Instagram, thanking Henderson for "letting" him take the penalty and asking people to “stop drama now (sic)”, underlines his improved professionalism in recent weeks. This is the Mario we warmed to initially, but also one keen to avoid any more controversy.
Rodgers was right. The penny has dropped for Balotelli. We’ve endured the frustrating, mopey character for much of the season but, finally, the Italian is demanding to be involved. Gerrard’s comments have come at the worst possible time – when most Liverpool fans were just starting to warm to Balotelli again. He’ll just have to hope they don’t fluster a man who stayed cool from 12 yards.
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