Tottenham Hotspur 0-03 Liverpool: Balotelli returns

LIVERPOOL captain Steven Gerrard forecast Mario Balotelli could be the key to a title push after the Italian made a bright start for the club in the 3-0 win at Tottenham.

Liverpool debutant Mario Balotelli, left, and fellow striker Daniel Sturridge, right, congratulate captain Steven Gerrard. Picture: Getty
Liverpool debutant Mario Balotelli, left, and fellow striker Daniel Sturridge, right, congratulate captain Steven Gerrard. Picture: Getty

Scorers: Liverpool - Sterling (8), Gerrard (49 pen), Moreno (60)

After joining from AC Milan, Balotelli was handed an immediate debut and spurned several first-half chances to grab an early goal for his new team. But Balotelli contributed well before being substituted after an hour, linking up effectively with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge.

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And Gerrard, who fired Liverpool’s second goal from the penalty spot in the Premier League win, said of the former Manchester City striker: “I thought he was terrific.

Liverpool debutant Mario Balotelli, left, and fellow striker Daniel Sturridge, right, congratulate captain Steven Gerrard. Picture: Getty

“All eyes were on him today, wondering whether he was going to work hard for the team... was he going to hold the ball up for us?

“Credit to him, I thought he was terrific for an hour. If he plays like that for us every week and continues to improve, he could be the difference whether we compete or not.”

Gerrard has found no fault in Balotelli’s attitude so far, with his temperament having been called into question on several occasions during a career blighted by disciplinary problems.

“He’s been terrific since he came in,” Gerrard said. “He’s worked hard and taken on all the tactics, how we play, with and without the ball.

“He’ll only improve with a manager like Brendan [Rodgers], and the rest of the lads, seeing what we all do. He’ll have to follow suit, that’s the only option.”

Gerrard remains Liverpool’s first choice when it comes to penalties, but he knows Balotelli can be lethal from 12 yards too.

“I’m aware he’s a terrific penalty taker,” Gerrard said. “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.

“That was a very important penalty today, because I know everyone’s waiting for me to miss so they can tell me Ricky [Lambert] or Mario can be the penalty takers. But the more good penalty takers we’ve got, the better.”

Gerrard said on Liverpool’s overall commanding display at White Hart Lane: “It was very good. I think we’re more pleased with the clean sheet than our attacking play which was superb again. We know we’re a threat, we’ve got pace, we’ve got talented players.

“The challenge for this team is to defend better, that’s what we got criticised for last year. Clean sheets are what we want so I’m sure the manager’s going to be buzzing with the clean sheet.” Rodgers’ side produced the ideal response to Monday’s defeat at Manchester City, with Sterling, Gerrard and a wonderful effort from Alberto Moreno condemning Spurs to their first defeat of the Mauricio Pochettino era.

The win was a fitting way to celebrate Rodgers’ 100th match at the helm – only Kenny Dalglish had a better win ratio over the same period – and victory looked likely from the outset.

Despite insisting in the build-up it would not become “the Mario Balotelli show”, the pre-match focus was on the Italian who had a wonderful chance to open his account after three minutes.

The maverick striker found space to meet a Sturridge cross at the back post, only for Hugo Lloris to save his close-range header before the striker turned the rebound wide. It was poor from Balotelli but a missed opportunity soon forgotten as Liverpool’s England trio combined for a stylish opener.

Sturridge played through Jordan Henderson, whose low, driven cross was turned in at the backpost by Sterling – a team goal which will have no doubt pleased watching England manager Roy Hodgson.

Emmanuel Adebayor had a decent chance to level almost immediately when put through by Nabil Bentaleb, only for him to lift the ball onto the roof of the net.

It was a rare moment of respite as Liverpool toyed with the hosts, wasting several decent chances to pull further ahead.

Sturridge wriggled free to strike a low left-footed effort just wide, before Balotelli wasted another gilt-edged chance when failing to head on target despite being left unmarked from a Gerrard free-kick.

Adebayor was proving a nuisance as Spurs began to settle, although a wayward effort from Danny Rose was all they had to show for their improved performance. They were still looking shaky on occasion at the back and Lloris was fortunate not to be punished for a rush of blood to the head.

Soon after saving a Sturridge pot shot, the French goalkeeper, like so many times before, burst off his line to make an interception, which he put straight at Balotelli – a chance the Italian snatched at, screwing wide of the open goal.

Balotelli was guilty of firing wildly over from a corner just before the break, which Spurs were close to going into level.

Adebayor showed good strength to flick the ball through to Nacer Chadli, although the attacker’s goalbound drive was denied by Simon Mignolet.

Spurs were fortunate not to be further behind at the break but Liverpool did double their advantage four minutes into the second half. Eric Dier was adjudged to have pulled back Joe Allen in the box, with Gerrard striking home the resulting penalty – a record 43rd successful spot-kick for Liverpool. It looked a soft decision by referee Phil Dowd and one which led Pochettino to make alterations, although the introduction of Andros Townsend immediately cost Spurs.

The dawdling winger was dispossessed by Moreno just inside the Liverpool half, with the left-back powering down the flank before letting fly across Lloris.

Balotelli was withdrawn after the Spaniard’s fine solo effort, which would have been usurped as the game’s best goal had the final touch matched the quality of Sterling’s inspired, mazy run.

Lloris denied that tame effort and a low Sturridge strike as the tempo slowed and game petered out.