When Mario Balotelli scored Italy's eventual game-winning goal against England in last summer's World Cup, the TV announcer bellowed "It had to be him!" a somewhat overused catch-all in soccer when a player haunts an old association. In this case, the shout was in reference to Balotelli's controversy-fueling behavioral issues that dotted his time at Manchester City prior to his eventual 2013 transfer to AC Milan.
Famously, one of those fires Balotelli started was by wearing a "Why Always Me?" T-shirt under his City jersey that he flashed after scoring against arch rival Manchester United in 2011. Balotelli and his friends had accidentally set his house on fire the day before by shooting off a firework.
All of this is a long way of saying: "It makes perfect sense that Balotelli, a virtual non-entity since Liverpool took a $25 million gamble on him last summer and brought him back to the Premier League, was the one to score the late game-winner against Tottenham that continues to compact the crazy chase for the final two Champions League spots."
Of course. It had to be him, right?
Tottenham, which was battling the Reds, the Anfield crowd and its own deeply entrenched legacy of "just when things are going well, we'll bottle something," had already equalized twice in Tuesday's match and was looking to grab a crucial away point after taking down Arsenal in the North London Derby over the weekend. It was about 10 minutes away from doing so when Balotelli expertly broke in behind the covering Spurs center back and tucked in a cross at point-blank range for his first Premier League goal of the season.
The 3-2 victory propelled the Reds to back within a point of Spurs and has helped create a dramatic cluster of five teams in the hunt for the money and prestige that go with admission into Europe's biggest club tournament.
With just five points separating third from seventh place with about a third of the season left to play, this race should be fascinating, and Liverpool looks ready to be a significant part of it. While still in seventh place, the Reds are now unbeaten in their last nine league matches (with 21 points in that span). They also have four home matches remaining against bottom-half teams as well as five left against teams ahead of them in the table. It's taken them awhile to get over the loss of Luis Suarez, but late wins like Tuesday are keeping them very much in the mix. If this goal kickstarts Balotelli to be an impactful force down the stretch, all the better.
Maybe it is always him?
LAMBERT OUT AT VILLA
Aston Villa went the entirety of October and January without scoring a league goal. Aston Villa has 12 points in its last 21 league matches, and has scored just eight goals in that span. Villa is on pace to score a total of just 18 goals for the season, which would be 10 fewer than the current record for fewest goals scored by a team that survived relegation (Leeds United in 1997). Aston Villa is currently in the relegation zone.
In related news, Aston Villa fired manager Paul Lambert on Wednesday after the latest impotency, a 2-0 loss at fellow struggler Hull City on Tuesday.
Villa has been in a weird spot for a couple seasons now, with an American owner (Randy Lerner) who wants to sell and doesn't seem to want to invest a lot of money into the club in the interim. The Villans skated by last season even as some of their young players regressed, and this season, fueled by a continued lack of sufficient investment in more prolific attacking players, is turning into a fiasco.
Had they not stolen 10 points in the first four matches of the season while mustering just six shots on goal, the Villans could be in dire shape. It will be up to Lambert's replacement to see if he can find a few more goals in this team and nudge them ahead of three other clubs with just 13 matches remaining.
HOWARD RETURNS FROM INJURY
U.S. (on hiatus) international goalkeeper Tim Howard returned on Wednesday for Everton and suffered a late 1-0 loss. His unconvincing punch of a cross ended up as a Willian winner that keeps Chelsea seven points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table. This has been a bit of a lost season for both Howard — who had been out since December, with Joel Robles starting eight straight matches for the Toffees — and for Everton, which has never found anything close to its form from last season.
In 12th place on 27 points, five points clear of the drop zone, Everton probably isn't in any relegation danger. But any kind of European push is long gone, and Howard needs to use the rest of the season to round into shape for a possible return to the U.S. national team down the road. It's uncertain whether Howard would even push to return for the now-earlier start of World Cup qualifying in November, but as he pushes on in age and rivals like Brad Guzan get a chance to stake their claim, Howard can't afford to let chances slip.
QPR'S ROAD WOES END
The 12th time was the charm for Queens Park Rangers, who hadn't garnered a point away from home the entire season before grabbing a pivotal 2-0 win at Sunderland. QPR actually hadn't held a lead away from Loftus Road this season before Leroy Fer's 17th-minute header nudged them ahead at the Stadium of Light.
As noted previously, QPR's away schedule was murderous in the first half of the season and it has better underlying stats than some of its relegation rivals, but at some point, you need to do some business away from home. Interim manager Chris Ramsey was able to do what Harry Redknapp was not: claim crucial points on the road (and walk without a limp that somehow required you to resign after you didn't get transfer money in January).