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Bruce: Reds must back Balotelli

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Mario Balotelli has endured a slow start to his Reds career, scoring just once in 10 appearances

Mario Balotelli has endured a slow start to his Reds career, scoring just once in 10 appearances

Mario Balotelli has endured a slow start to his Reds career, scoring just once in 10 appearances

Mario Balotelli may have more critics than allies at the moment but he will run into two sympathetic opponents when Liverpool host Hull on Saturday.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce and midfielder Tom Huddlestone both feel the Reds striker has been harshly judged on his return to English football.

Balotelli's output has not been what Brendan Rodgers hoped for from a player of his pedigree, one goal in 10 appearances hardly commensurate with his £16million price tag, but a half-time shirt swap has created even more controversy.

Pundits have lined up to question the Italian's decision to trade jerseys with Real Madrid's Pepe while 3-0 down in a crunch Champions League tie, with his own manager Brendan Rodgers seemingly unimpressed too.

It is the latest in a litany of controversies to surround the player, whose reputation precedes him.

But Bruce, who has vivid memories of one of the game's most unique characters, Eric Cantona, from their time together at Manchester United, insists Rodgers must support his occasionally wayward asset to get the best from him.

"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 not everyone's cup of tea but there's no doubt about it, he's got exceptional ability.

"Cantona was supposed to be a troublemaker everywhere he went but once you bring a maverick in, you have to work with them.

"When they've got that maverick in 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."

Huddlestone, meanwhile, feels the shirt-swap incident has been overplayed.

"Everything around him just seems to be blown out of all proportion," said the 27-year-old.

"Everyone just seems to jump on the bandwagon. I watched the game on Wednesday and you physically see Pepe ask him.

"To a fellow professional he's not going to say 'no no, because we're losing, I'm not going to swap shirts with you'.

"It puts him in a difficult position and I don't know what people expect him to do.

"I felt for him, it's not as if he sprinted after Pepe and asked for his shirt."

Indeed, while the practice may seem an alien one in English football it does not carry the same stigma on the continent - as Huddlestone found out earlier in his own career.

Like Balotelli, he found himself losing heavily at half-time in a Champions League clash - Tottenham's trip to Inter Milan in 2010.

"I've been asked the same thing myself, to be fair. When we were 4-0 down at Inter Milan.

"Maicon said it to me, coming down the tunnel. I was only 23 at the time, so I wasn't going to say no.

"I actually did swap shirts, I just made sure I hid it out of the sight of Harry Redknapp and everyone."

Despite standing up for Balotelli, Huddlestone admits his team-mates may not be so charitable if they get the chance to wind the combustible Italian up at Anfield.

"It depends on how the game's going, but I'm sure there are a few who will think about asking him to swap on Saturday," he laughed.