Brendan Rodgers believes Daniel Sturridge should thrive after the imminent arrival of Mario Balotelli and denied Liverpool buckled under the pressure of last season’s title race with Manchester City.
Liverpool’s quest to replace Luis Suárez is expected to end on Monday with the £16m signing of Balotelli from Milan. The Italy international convinced Rodgers he was a risk worth taking during face-to-face talks on Friday, completed his medical on Saturday and is due to return from Italy on Monday to sign a three-year contract worth a basic £80,000 a week. He will earn an extra £40,000 per week providing he meets a series of behavioural and performance clauses demanded by Liverpool.
Balotelli will not be eligible to face his former club Manchester City on Monday when the top two in the Premier League last season meet at the Etihad Stadium, although there is a chance he could attend the match. Responsibility for leading the line will again fall to another ex-City striker, Sturridge, whose winner on the opening weekend against Southampton took his Liverpool tally to an outstanding 36 goals in 50 appearances.
The 24-year-old has assumed greater importance to Rodgers’ team since the sale of Suárez but Liverpool have pursued several leading strikers this summer before opting to take a risk on Balotelli. The Liverpool manager is confident the England international appreciates the search is no reflection of his status at Anfield.
“I have spoken to Daniel about how important he is to the team,” said Rodgers, who has the £20m summer signing Lazar Markovic available for the trip to City. “The confidence I have in him has been shown in his performances and goals – 36 in 50 – and you are not doing that if you are not happy with your life and happy with your football. I have said repeatedly that Daniel is a top talent, but we need to have more than one top talent in here. But he is a big player for us and will remain to be.”
Sturridge, who is expected to be offered a new contract by Liverpool this season, did not always see eye to eye with Suárez during their time together on Merseyside, but Rodgers insists the striker will welcome the competition from Balotelli.
He said: “The dynamics are important but I don’t worry because if you are a top player with a top mind then you want other top players. If you are a top player and looking at another top player coming in then you will be thinking, ‘He can help us.’ A top player with a top mentality responds to the competition.
“We can also play a diamond. We played that eight times last year and won seven, and we flipped to that against Southampton. We can change systems and I need that flexibility. Also, if you look at Daniel’s injury record, then he has missed a number of weeks through being injured. I need to ensure I have got the replacements if they are not on the pitch at the same time.”
City pipped Liverpool to the title by two points in May despite Rodgers’ team holding a six-point advantage with three matches to play, albeit with Manuel Pellegrini’s team having a game in hand. The City manager suggested last week that increasing pressure affected Liverpool in the final weeks of the campaign but Rodgers maintains it was misfortune that cost his club a first league title in 24 years.
The Liverpool manager said: “People talk about the run-in and the pressure and all of that, but in the last 14 games we won 12, drew one and lost one and the one loss was so unfortunate. We had actually played really well and then just before half time Stevie [Gerrard] slips [against Chelsea]. That has nothing to do with winning the title, it’s just a slip. You go one-nil down and it is difficult. For 70 minutes we knocked on the door but I didn’t have depth then to change the game, I didn’t have the squad to reverse the personnel. Of course, it helps when you have won it before but it wasn’t about [City’s] experience.”
Rodgers insists “there is no doubt we are stronger” to challenge the champions this season and believes the depth of City’s squad was also a telling factor in the title race. He added: “I think we missed out on a little bit of luck towards the end and, over the course of it, they have a strong squad.
“They haven’t had to add too many because their squad is so strong. I had nothing but pride in how we played and how we were. As for conclusions, defensively we needed to be better, not in terms of organisation but in terms of errors. We made too many individual mistakes. If we can cut that out and still look to retain that efficiency going forward we will be a threat to most teams.”