Maverick striker Mario Balotelli managed to upset his Liverpool teammates despite scoring a late penalty in a 1-0 win over Besiktas in the last 32 of the Europa League, one of several first-leg victories for expected title contenders on Thursday.
Liverpool\’s stand-in captain, Jordan Henderson, was preparing to take the 85th-minute spot kick at Anfield when Balotelli — a penalty specialist — took the ball off him. Henderson momentarily appeared unhappy, as did Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, but they were soon congratulating Balotelli after he converted for the winning goal.
"Jordan should have taken that penalty. Rules are rules. Mario\’s been a bit mischievous," said injured Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, speaking in his role as a pundit for British broadcaster ITV. "Jordan is the captain and Mario showed Jordan a bit of disrespect there."
The commotion over the penalty took the gloss off another match-winning contribution from Balotelli, who is finally showing some form after a slow start to his Liverpool career. Last week, he scored a late winner against Tottenham in the Premier League.
Napoli secured victory much sooner against Trabzonspor, scoring three times in the opening 27 minutes through Henrique, Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini, before Duvan Zapata added a fourth in second-half stoppage time in a 4-0 win.
In-form Dutch striker Das Bost scored twice in Wolfsburg\’s 2-0 win over Sporting Lisbon, taking his tally to 10 goals in six games in all competitions, and defending champion Sevilla edged past Borussia Moenchengladbach 1-0 through Vicente Iborra\’s goal.
On an action-packed night as Europe\’s second-tier competition resumed, Inter Milan was denied victory at Celtic after conceding a goal three minutes into stoppage time to John Guidetti in a 3-3 draw between two former European champions. Rodrigo Palacio had earlier scored twice for Inter.
It was a frustrating night for two other Italian teams, too, as Roma was held 1-1 at home by Feyenoord and Torino was pegged back in a 2-2 home draw with Athletic Bilbao.
The build-up to the Roma-Feyenoord match was marred by fans of the Dutch visitors clashing with police, injuring several officers in a rampage through the capital city.
Tottenham drew 1-1 at home to Fiorentina in another high-profile matchup while Everton came from behind to beat Young Boys 4-1, with Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku scoring a hat trick for a team struggling in the Premier League.
Brazil forward Hulk scored Zenit St. Petersburg\’s goal in a 1-0 win at PSV Eindhoven, and there were also wins for Ajax, Villarreal, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Club Brugge. Highly rated winger Claudio Beauvue sparked little-known Guingamp\’s recovery from a goal down against Dynamo Kiev, scoring his 20th goal in all competitions to help the French team win 2-1.
The second legs take place next week.
Balotelli is never far from controversy — even when he is scoring winning goals.
Again he impressed when coming on as a substitute, as he did against Tottenham last week and in an FA Cup win at Crystal Palace on Saturday when his free kick led to the winning goal.
It was no surprise to see him seek out the ball after young winger Jordon Ibe was fouled for the penalty that ended Besiktas\’ stubborn resistance. At first, Henderson appeared to be against giving Balotelli the ball but relented, even after Sturridge came to confront Balotelli.
"Credit to Mario, he\’s scored, but it\’s not nice to see when footballers are arguing," an unhappy-looking Gerrard said. "I think Jordan has handled the situation very well."
Henderson congratulated Balotelli after the Italy striker sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from the spot, for his 27th successful penalty conversion from 29 attempts.
"I wanted the penalty," Henderson said. "Mario felt confident and he has taken big penalties before. Everyone wants to take them. I felt confident in Mario, he has taken big penalties before and he got the nod."
Balotelli took to Twitter soon after the match, saying: "Thank you hendo for let me take the penalty.. Stop drama now. We won that\’s what it count."