"I think we have done a really smart piece of business here. This transfer represents outstanding value for the club."

On the face it, £16m for a 24-year-old striker whose goals had already helped win domestic titles in Italy and England while bagging 13 international goals in 33 appearances appeared to tally precisely with Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers' assessment of his new buy.

Sure, Mario Balotelli had 'baggage' but so had the last young foreign frontman Liverpool had brought in, the man Balotelli had been bought to replace.

Luis Suarez had already made headlines for biting an opponent and turning a whole continent against him with his hard-nose antics at a World Cup when he arrived at Anfield in January 2011, also aged 24.

While no-one could pretend some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Uruguayan's character Liverpool were being forewarned against did not play out during his eventful three and a half years at Anfield, in a footballing sense it's hard to see how he could be regarded as anything other than "a really smart piece of business", wowing the Kop and at times begrudgingly the rest of the league even if few would admit it with his trickery, goals and sheer utterly single-minded will to win.

82 goals in 133 Liverpool games told only a fraction of the story as Suarez's world-class talent helped drag the Reds to the brink of ending the now quarter-of-a-century league title drought hanging over the club before his sale to Barcelona for £75million, a £50+million profit on the fee paid to Ajax at the start of Kenny Dalglish's second reign as manager.

Devastating though the 2014 title near-miss had been, Liverpudlians still hoped the basis of the side which had defied all expectations and produced one of the most scintillating and pleasantly suprising seasons in living memory could - with the right additions - build on the momentum of the previous campaign and mount credible challenges for trophies again.

Replacing Suarez was always going to be the biggest challenge and there was some sense of logic in gambling on replacing one maverick talent with another but, as all at Anfield would painfully discover, there would prove to be seismic differences between two players who had arrived at Anfield at the same age but at very different stages in their careers.

Balotelli had broken through as a youngster at Inter Milan, being given his debut by the manager who he would enjoy his most succesful spell in England under, Roberto Mancini.

Aged only 17, a double-strike against Juventus in a Coppa Italia quarter-final brought him national attention and played a part in helping the Nerazzuri win a Serie A and cup double in 2008.

The following season saw him become the youngest player in the club's history to score in the Champions League and he managed 8 goals in 22 Serie A appearances as the title was retained, although perhaps inevitably he and new Inter coach Jose Mourinho rubbed each up the wrong way.

Unhappy with his application in training, Mourinho would repeatedly call him out publicly for not learning from the example of the experienced pros the coach he felt he should be absorbing everything from, saying: "As far as I'm concerned, a young boy like him cannot allow himself to train less than people like Figo, Córdoba, and Zanetti."

In just his second Serie A campaign, Balotelli also found himself the target of persistent racist abuse from the stands, notably from Juventus fans who would sing about him even in matches not involving Inter with the Turin club condemning their own supporters' behaviour after a match between the teams and eventually being fined twice and ordered to close part of their stadium for one match.

It would have been all too familiar to a young man born in the south of the country in Palermo and abandoned by his Ghananian parents at the age of two, before being adopted by loving foster parents in Concesio, Brescia in the north where he found himself the only black boy in a white neighbourhood.

Speaking in 2015, Sergio Aguero said of his one-time team-mate, "A lot of his behaviour, I feel, came from a feeling that he was somehow different and maybe a little insecure. Everybody loved him, though he drove us nuts at times.”

The following season would be arguably the greatest in Inter's history with the club completing an unprecedented Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League triumph but while Balotelli managed to contribute 11 goals in 40 appearances in all competitions, his continually jarring relationship with Mourinho, who would go on to label him 'unmanageable' meant his days at the club looked numbered.

The Portuguese said his young striker, still not yet 20, had come 'close to a zero rating' in a November 2009 1-1 draw with Roma and a spat in the build-up to the Champions League knock-out clash with Chelsea saw Balotelli left out and heavily criticised by senior players Javier Zanetti and Marco Materazzi, as well as his own agent.

The final straw for the club hierarchy may well have been when he wore the shirt of city rivals AC Milan on Italian tv show Striscia la Notizia. And his actions in throwing his Inter shirt on the ground after being jeered following his performance in the first leg Champions League semi final against Barcelona finished him off in the eyes of the fans.

He never got off the bench in the second leg or the final in Madrid where Inter beat Bayern Munich to seal the club's first European Cup since 1965 and was sold to Manchester City for fee thought to be in the region of £24m.

It was felt the presence of Roberto Mancini, who was said early on on their professional relationship to look paternally on Balotelli and believed he had the ability to establish himself alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best players on the planet, could be the key to helping the young Italian - who turned 20 as his debut season in English football began - unlock his undoubted potential.

He didn't get off to the easiest of starts in Manchester, coming on as a sub to score on his debut in a Europa League qualifier against Romanian side Politehnica Timișoara but later in the game tweaking knee ligaments, which required surgery and came him out of action until October.

His Premier League career suffered a similarly mixed beginning with his first goals in a win over West Brom at the Hawthorns being followed by a red card for violent conduct but his undoubted pedigree was highlighted that December when he was awarded the Golden Boy award, given to Europe's best young player and previously won by the likes of Messi, Sergio Agüero and Cesc Fàbregas, which Balotelli accepted while claiming he'd never heard of Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, the player he narrowly beat to the award.

Stories of wild antics around Manchester had begun to circulate but he ended the campaign having helped City secure the first trophy of the Sheikh Mansour era and end a club drought stretching back to the 1974 League Cup when he was part of the side, and indeed was voted man of the match, in an FA Cup final victory over Stoke City at Wembley, Balotelli receiving his award by saying live on tv, “All my season was s***. Can I say that?”

He incurred Mancini's wrath the following pre-season during a friendly against LA Galaxy in the United States when having put through on goal, he turned full circle and flicked the ball behind his legs before trying to score with a backheel and missing, being immediately substituted in disgrace and it would be the ensuing campaign which would reveal the true extent of Balotelli's capability for the sublime and the ridiculous.

He scored 13 goals in just 23 Premier League appearances as City made their first serious modern bid for the title but was sent off four times, one of them at Anfield in a 1-1 November 2011 draw with the final dismissal being in an Easter Sunday defeat at Arsenal which seemed to have ended their title hopes, leaving them five points behind league leaders Manchester United with only five games left.

A furious Mancini suggested after the game he wouldn't play Balotelli again that season but, with City having got themselves back in pole position ahead of the final round of matches yet trailing at home to Queens Park Rangers where victory would guarantee a first top-flight title since 1968, it was the Italian who produced an assist while falling to the ground of remarkable composure and awareness to set up Aguero's last-gasp winner in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen to an English season.

It cemented his place in Manchester City legend, having already given the-then perennially under-achieving club a day to remember earlier in the campaign by sidefooting home the opener in a 6-1 win away to reigning champions United and unveiling a t-shirt which read 'Why Always Me?' having that Sunday morning been splashed all over the tabloids for an indoor fireworks show that had reportedly almost burned down his house.

Tales of his wild antics seems to be almost as much in abundance as his goals with some, such as suggestions he would drive down Manchester's Deansgate handing £50 notes to the homeless and another of him walking into one of the city's roughest pubs to challenge everyone inside to a darts match. Apocryphal or not, something about them was believable.

Current Liverpool midfielder James Milner, a key part of that City side before his move to Anfield in the summer of 2015 just as Balotelli was about to leave Anfield, wrote of his former team-mate in his book, Ask A Footballer, "The easiest way to describe him is to say that he was like a 12-year-old.

“That might sound like I’m digging him out but I’m just trying to explain what he was like. He had this fantastic skillset and a great physique but in other ways he was like a big kid who hadn’t grown up.

“If a few of us were having a conversation and he was on the opposite side of the dressing room, he would make a loud noise or something daft so that he would get attention.

“A lot of the things he did — throwing darts, wearing that glove-style hat and even the car he drove with the camouflage wrap — seemed to be about trying to get attention. Whether that was out of insecurity, or whether he had found it hard to grow up because he had such a difficult upbringing, that was what he was like.

“I wasn’t laughing the time he drove his car into mine in the car park. It’s not easy trying to get camouflage paint off your car. But you couldn’t ever stay frustrated with him for long.”

Having lost their league title to their bitter neighbours, Manchester United fought back strongly in what would be Alex Ferguson's final season in charge, winning their title back by 11 points from a distant City in second, with Mancini leaving after shock defeat to an about-to-be-relegated Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final.

Balotelli had returned to Italy the previous January, joining AC Milan for £19 million plus bonuses and add-ons, after managing only one goal in the first half of the title defence and threatening to take the club to a Premier League tribunal over a fine imposed for his poor disciplinary record the previous season.

He started well with the Rossonieri, equalling Oliver Bierhoff's record of four goals in his first three matches for the club and by the end of the following campaign had a more than respectable tally of 30 goals in 54 games but the scrutiny - and racial abuse - he continued to received on home soil was unrelenting.

Meanwhile at Anfield, the task of replacing Luis Suarez was proving even more difficult than had been anticipated.

Brendan Rodgers had signed Southampton's Scouse forward and lifelong Liverpool fan Rickie Lambert along with young Belgian talent Divock Origi early in the summer of 2014 to bolster an attacking armoury which still included Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling but hopes of bringing in Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez - as close to a like-for-like to Suarez as the Reds were ever likely to get - never got off the ground due to the Chilean star's wife's reported preference to live in London.

An £8.5m deal to sign QPR's French striker Loic Remy fell through on medical grounds and reported interest in Swansea's Wilfried Bony never got off the ground due to what we regarded as excessive wage demands.

Balotelli's potential availability was put to Rodgers while on Liverpool's pre-season tour of the United States but the Reds boss shot down any likelihood of the Italian arriving at Anfield.

"I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool", Rodgers said on 3 August ahead a friendly against Manchester United in Miami, and just days after he had featured for AC Milan against the Reds in Charlotte.

“In my last press conference I was asked a question about Mario Balotelli and I talked about what a talent he was and what an excellent player he was. And the next day it was wrote as if we were signing him.

"I just gave my perception of him as a player. It shouldn’t be transmitted into us signing the player.”

Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool and Mario Balotelli of AC Milan share a joke
Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool and Mario Balotelli of AC Milan share a joke

Yet a little over three weeks later with the Reds about to visit the Italian's former club Manchester City following a narrow opening weekend victory over Southampton at Anfield, Balotelli was at Liverpool with Rodgers now saying "There is no doubting Mario's ability. He is a world-class talent and someone who, for such a young age, has vast experience of playing at the very highest level.

"He has scored goals in the Premier League, in Italy, in the Champions League and for his country at international level.

"I believe we have the infrastructure, culture and environment to get the best out of him and help him achieve his true potential.

"We are a strong group here, committed to hard work and he will benefit from being around it. I am looking forward to working with him and helping him learn more, improve and progress as a player."

Rodgers insisted the club had done their due diligence over Balotelli and had received the assurances they wanted over his behaviour and commitment to the cause, with his agent Mino Raiola stressing the player himself knew he was in something of a 'last chance saloon'.

“At the top level, yes", Raiola admitted.

"It's either make or break now. If it goes wrong? Mario is 24 years old. He no longer has the alibi of his age.

"Now it’s up to him. Another flop is inadvisable."

The initial portents seemed good. Liverpool had been well beaten in the game at City the night Balotelli's transfer had been confirmed but he was handed a full debut away at Tottenham the following weekend and, although he didn't get on the scoresheet, played an encouraging part in an impressive 3-0 away win with Rodgers delighted with his new striker's application in what had been the Northern Irishman's 100th game as Reds boss and also delighted if surprised his new charge realised he could be use to his team in both penalty areas.

“For the first time in his life he marked at a corner", Rodgers said.

“Seriously. An international player who has won three titles in Italy, cups, the Champions League. We were doing corners and I said to him: ‘I’m putting you on a man at defensive corners.’ He said: ‘I don’t mark at corners.’ ‘Ah, well you do now.’ He went in and he had a great header today from a corner. Treat him like an adult and that’s what happens.

"We have seen today he has bought straight into the team ethic. We have seen his appetite for football. He's not 100% match fit but his work without the ball, the pressure, strength and his quality was excellent."

Balotelli's Anfield debut didn't go quite as well with Liverpool losing thanks to Gaby Agbonlahor's early goal for Aston Villa but three days later he scored his first goal for the club, a smart 82nd finish at the Kop end to open the scoring in the Champions League group opener against Bulgarian side Ludogorets which led to a 2-1 win it was hoped would kick-start a season which had yet to ignite.

Defeat at West Ham followed days later, the Reds' third league defeat already in only five matches, and the following weekend saw a Merseyside derby which in some ways would go on to symbolise the kind of the season Rodgers and Balotelli were doomed to endure.

Having scraped past Championship side Middlesbrough after a marathon 14-13 penalty shoot-out win after extra time days before, Steven Gerrard's free kick put the Reds in front early in the second half but after Balotelli missed a presentable chance to double the advantage when hitting the bar from close range, Phil Jagielka's stoppage time long-ranger grabbed a point for the visitors to deepen the gloom around Anfield.

By the following midweek's Champions League trip to face FC Basel, the old habits which Liverpool had been warned against ahead of signing Balotelli were resurfacing and alarm bells were beginning to go off behind the scenes.

With some of his friends have driven across to Switzerland to see him, the Italian striker was seen staying up late with them and nipping out for smokes the night before the game in which he started and Liverpool lost abjectly 1-0, former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness being particularly scathing about his performance afterwards.

"My mum told me that if you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all", Souness said.

"I think he summed up what Liverpool were about. How many times did you see him and he ended up limping after any sort of challenge on him?

"He was complaining to the referee, he gave away possession far too easily and he wasn't alone in that and I thought he had another miserable night.

"Yes, he's got ability of a type and produced a great free-kick in the second half, but he doesn't do enough for me."

Within weeks, Balotelli's team-mates were fast losing patience with him as well with one anecdote from Liverpool's Premier League trip to Queens Park Rangers in mid October illustrating how the situation was unravelling.

Although the Reds would return home from the capital with a fortuitous three points after Steven Caulker's 94th minute own goal sealed a 3-2 away win following a madcap period of stoppage time, Balotelli - who had blazed over an open goal from three yards with the game goalless - and his attitude were now causing serious issues within the dressing.

“He barely moved", one player who felt the game proved of a watershed of the Italian's time at Anfield told the Athletic.

"A lot of the lads caned him but there was very little comeback other than a few scowls and ‘f*** you.’

"He didn’t try to justify anything or tell anyone else what they could be doing better. That’s always a sign that he’s not really thinking or interested.”

A second Liverpool goal followed later that month in a League Cup win over Swansea but stories of the damage his behaviour was doing to the already-fragile team spirit at Anfield were becoming far more prolific.

After receiving criticism from swapping shirts with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos as he was being substituted at half time in a 3-0 Champions League hammering at Anfield, Rodgers began to regularly leave him out of the side as Balotelli gradually withdrew into his own world, engaging with his team mates and the squad only when had to.

His hankering for home cooking reportedly saw him regularly have Italian food delivered to his Formby mansion rather than eat with his team-mates - some of whose names he was said still not to have known by Christmas - with his close friend Desmond N’Ze, a former team-mate at Inter during their youth days, becoming an increasingly irritating presence at Melwood, regularly being seen sleeping in Balotelli's red Ferrari as he waited for his pal to finish training and occasionally wandering into meetings and place where he had no right to be.

Stories of their antics around Formby became legion, where they would apparently amuse themselves by doing laps of the village late at night in high-powered sports cars - Balotelli received a driving ban after being caught doing 109mph on the M62 in December 2014 - and reportedly hold late-night parties. One tale alleged that Balotelli - having despatched N'Ze to Tesco to get him the latest iPhone which he'd just heard had been released - pulled up in training holding his hamstring, only to be seen buzzing off his new device without a care in the world when his team-mates returned after a tough session an hour and a half later.

With Balotelli now firmly on the fringes, he didn't start a game between the home defeat to Chelsea on 8 November and the Europa League last 32 defeat on penalties to Besiktas in Istanbul's Ataturk Stadium on 26 February, Liverpool's abject season did pick up somewhat.

An unbeaten Premier League run of ten wins and three draws following defeat at Old Trafford in mid December put the Reds right back in the mix for Champions League qualification, with the impressive early March victory at Anfield over reigning champions Manchester City even causing some fans to wonder somewhat fancifully whether the previous season's new year charge could be replicated and even bettered.

The third and fourth (and ultimately final) goals of Balotelli's Anfield spell came as that spell began to gain some real momentum in February, the Italian coming off the bench to score the late winner with his only Premier League goal for the club in a 3-2 Anfield win over Tottenham on 10 February and the following week scoring a late penalty to gain a 1-0 first leg advantage in the Besiktas Europa League tie.

Even the latter came with a caveat, Balotelli being publicly criticised by his captain Steven Gerrard for grabbing the ball off Henderson having not long come off the bench, which led to awkward scenes before the 85th minute kick was taken.

Substitute Mario Balotelli received criticism after taking the ball off Jordan Henderson to take a penalty against Besiktas in the Europa League

“Jordan should have taken the penalty. Rules are rules", Gerrard said.

"It should have been Henderson. Mario has been a bit mischievous.

“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."

As it turned, Liverpool's upsurge which had begun after the December Premier League defeat at Old Trafford ended abruptly after Louis Van Gaal's side won the return fixture at Anfield on 22 March, with an incident before the Reds' next match at Arsenal a fortnight later demonstrating just how Balotelli had became a complete law unto himself.

With the Italian playing in a practice match ahead of the trip to the Emirates and frustrated at being on the weaker team made up of those likely to be substitutes, he turned on the halfway and fired a shot into the back of the net of his own goal, laughing his head off as the the ball flew past a bemused Brad Jones.

He was unsurprisingly left of the squad for the trip to London, a 4-1 defeat which saw Liverpool's season - and ultimately Rodgers' time at the helm - truly start to unravel.

Balotelli came off the bench in the Reds battled in vain to save the FA Cup semi-final lost to relegation-threatened Aston Villa at Wembley and, though he started the late season goalless draw at West Brom and defeat at Hull, it was clear as day the experiment had failed and his time at Liverpool was up.

Rodgers received a stay of execution despite a woeful end to the campaign which hit a final new low with a humiliating 6-1 defeat at Stoke City on the last weekend and was still entrusted with the club cheque book to bring in new frontmen Cristian Benteke from Aston Villa for £32.5m and Roberto Firmino from German side Hoffenheim for £29m, with Balotelli being loaned back to AC Milan before the new 2015/16 campaign got underway.

He managed just one league goal in twenty appearances and, with Milan having no desire to make the move permanent, he had to return to Liverpool for pre-season training in the summer of 2016 where Jurgen Klopp had now taken over as manager.

The German made it clear he saw no future for Balotelli at Anfield, leaving him out of the club's American pre-season tour and making him train with the under-18s but the Italian, having reportedly told his Milan team-mates he believed he could become a key player for the charismatic new Reds boss, stunned then-under-18s coach Michael Beale with a sensational performance in a practice match.

Beale used it as a salutory lesson for his young charges to illustrate how much work was necessary to earn a first team chance, making the point even having the kind of prodigious talent Balotelli was blessed with would not be enough without a willingness to work hard, the Italian shortly afterwards finally leaving the club on a free transfer to join French club Nice.

Anfield icon Steven Gerrard, whose 17th and final season at Liverpool coincided with Balotelli's, spoke in his autobiography about how even from the start he had his doubts over whether his presence at Anfield could ever work out.

“In my last season, Brendan Rodgers came to me at Melwood one day in mid-August", Gerrard recalled.

"We had a chat on the training pitch. He said, ‘You know we’ve missed out on a couple of signings. I’m basically left with no option but to have a bit of a gamble.’

“Brendan paused before he spoke again: ‘The gamble is Mario Balotelli.’ My instant reaction was, ‘Uh-oh.’

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“I’d never met Balotelli but I’d heard all the stories about the indoor fireworks and Jose Mourinho describing him as an ‘unmanageable’ player. I could see that, in the right mood, he was a quality footballer but the rest of his career seemed like a spectacular waste of talent. That was my opinion of Balotelli.

“But I also had to admit that, when he played for Italy, he seemed able to switch on his gift like he was snapping on a bright light. When he scored the winner against England in the 2014 World Cup a month earlier he showed all the movement which made him so difficult to mark at his best. I told Brendan that, up close to him on the pitch, you could see that he was a big, powerful guy.

“Brendan must have sensed my underlying reservations because he spoke a little more about why he thought it could be worth the risk. Brendan implied that Balotelli didn’t have anywhere else to go — and it seemed as if Liverpool would be Balotelli’s last chance to shine at a major club.

“He would be offered a strict contract. Any bad behaviour would be punished.

“I reminded myself that I had always allowed every new player to come into the club with a clean slate. Balotelli’s reputation tested that resolve but I tried my best to be open-minded.

“After his promising debut against Tottenham he had lapsed in training and the subsequent games. His demeanour was very poor. I made up my mind pretty quickly after that about Balotelli.

“There was no friction between us. We got on fine. I still tried to help him and I kept looking for chances to praise him.

“But I could see Mourinho had been right when he said Balotelli is unmanageable.

“He is very talented with the potential to be world class, but he’ll never get there because of his mentality and the people around him.

“Balotelli’s always late, he always wants attention, he says the wrong things on social media.

“For me, he doesn’t work hard enough on a daily basis. You’re always fighting a losing battle with Balotelli. He does too many things wrong.”

Rodgers meanwhile claimed a few months after his own departure in October 2015 that he never wanted to sign Balotelli but his arrival was at the insistence of FSG who believed the £16m gamble could become a £50m superstar.

"What we wanted and what we needed was a player who could really press at the top end of the field”, Rodgers said.

"It wasn’t just a goalscorer we were after. I felt Mario was someone who wouldn’t work for us. But come the end of the summer, we were struggling to get someone who could do the role we wanted. I think the ownership group thought that this could be a player I could develop.

"They were thinking that maybe he is a £50m player that we can get for £16m. So, when the owners are wanting you to go down that route and there is no other options, then of course you give it a go.

"The huge blow for us was we felt we were getting Alexis Sanchez. We thought Luis was going and he would have been the like-for-like replacement. He would have been perfect for us.”

The reality was any striker coming into Liverpool in the summer of 2014 would have faced an almost impossible task in trying to replace Suarez and galvanise a club still devastated by the loss of a long-overdue and yearned-for league title which seemed to have been written in the stars.

The sad truth was, even if those stars had been in perfect alignment, that striker was never likely to be Mario Balotelli.

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