Mario antics hide Reds’ real problem

Under-fire striker Mario Balotelli’s spell in the headlines has helped deflect attention from Liverpool’s real problem but manager Brendan Rodgers knows that is something which cannot be ignored.

The Reds have kept just one clean sheet in their last 18 matches.

A summer overhaul of the defence has not rectified an increasingly worrying issue, with Liverpool crashing to a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid on Wednesday.

While the misfiring Balotelli, with just one goal in 10 appearances, is creating a cause for concern up front in the continued absence of Daniel Sturridge, the real worries are at the other end of the field.

The introduction of centre-half Dejan Lovren and left-back Alberto Moreno appears to have had no effect on the Reds’ vulnerability but Rodgers insists it is an issue relative to the whole team.

“Defensively we need to be better as a team, not just the defence and keeper,” he said ahead of today’s visit of Hull.

“We all pride ourselves on clean sheets but we need to be more competitive and aggressive in those moments as a team. We need to reinforce key principles in that organisation and then it’s you as a player on the field showing that competitive spirit.

“The great competitors don’t get done so easily in those situations and that’s something we need to improve upon.”

Rodgers believes part of the reason for the increased criticism in the wake of the defeat to Real is because expectations have increased massively after last season’s run to second place in the Premier League.

They did that thanks to 31 goals from the now-departed Luis Suarez but the Reds boss was keen to stress the picture was not as bleak as some were painting.

“We have been a victim in terms of how well we have done,” he added.

“I looked at the Real result from how far we’d come because two and a bit years ago we were a long way off playing Real Madrid at Anfield.

“But we have made such strides we were expected to go into a game against the best team in the world and win.

“For all the criticism the team has taken we are joint-fourth in the league, we are still in the League Cup and getting out of the (Champions League) group stage is still in our hands.”

With Sturridge not yet ready to return, Rodgers has little option but to persevere with Balotelli up front having virtually admitted summer signing Rickie Lambert is a substitute of last resort. The England international remained on the bench for the entire game against Real watching as winger Raheem Sterling was pressed into action as an emergency striker after Balotelli was withdrawn at half-time.

Rodgers said it was an option he could use again but that by no means plays to the 19-year-old’s strengths, while placing an additional burden on the shoulders of a youngster who already has so much responsibility for the side.

“I felt in the (Madrid) game his mobility and speed would help us along that line,” Rodgers said. “He is a talented young player and played as a striker as a youngster so he understands the position.

“Mario wants to score, we want to score goals and obviously at this moment he is not. Hard work will improve confidence and confidence improves your success, it is as simple as that.”

Balotelli may have more critics than allies at the moment but he will run into a sympathetic face today.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce and midfielder Tom Huddlestone both feel the Reds striker has been harshly judged.

“From the outside looking in, it’s been a difficult start for him but you should always appreciate what you’re going to get (with Balotelli). You’ve got to understand that he’s going to be different,” said Bruce.

“You have to weigh that up to start with and once you’ve brought him in you’ve got to bear with him. He’s got exceptional ability.

“Eric Cantona was supposed to be a troublemaker everywhere he went but once you bring a maverick in, you have to work with them. You have to handle them differently. They are not the norm.

“You make that decision as a manager the minute you bring them in.”


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