How Messi took Suarez under his wing to help striker thrive at Barca
Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30
The moment that changed Barcelona and Luis Suarez's season passed without anyone noticing. The Uruguayan was playing on the right of the attack against Ajax when he found himself in the middle. He looked across to Lionel Messi and trotted back to the wing, but Messi told him to stay put.
Whether it is true that Messi dictates team tactics remains a hot talking point in Barcelona but certainly after that night in November coach Luis Enrique played Suarez centrally, with Messi on the right and Neymar on the left.
After this simple change in Amsterdam, the trident really started to click, becoming the most prolific front three in the history of European football.
The trio's mesmerising movement and 120 goals have won Barcelona a league and cup double already.
For all his brilliance, Messi had been viewed by some in Spain as "a little dictator" suspicious of any player who threatened his role as the team's No 1 striker.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa both suffered in Messi's shadow. Given these precedents, plus Suarez's £75m price tag and the small fact he arrived at Barcelona after global condemnation for biting Giorgio Chiellini, there was concern within the club about whether Suarez would be a hit.
But the striker has thrived, scoring 24 goals and providing 20 assists, nine for Messi and nine for Neymar. He has fitted seamlessly into his new team and the support of Messi has been crucial.
As well as dovetailing on the pitch, the pair are incredibly close. The two players pick up their sons from nursery together, and in December Suarez's family moved to within a stone's throw of Messi's abode in the seaside town of Castelldefels.
"He's happy on the pitch because he feels supported by the genius and leader of the team, which is Messi. It is similar to the support he had from Steven Gerrard at Liverpool," says Martin Charquero, a Uruguayan television journalist who has known Suarez since he was a teenager.
"I have also noticed a maturity in accepting a secondary role at Barcelona. He had to carry Liverpool on his back but he has accepted the place he has in Barcelona, which is a demonstration of his intelligence."
The presence of Messi and other icons of football takes the pressure and the spotlight away from Suarez. The focus on him in England, especially after racially abusing Patrice Evra and biting Branislav Ivanovic, weighed heavily.
Right now, Suarez is where he always wanted to be. Since he was a teenager he spent every break in Catalonia after his girlfriend Sofia, now his wife, emigrated there with her parents. Their first child Delfina was born there.
Now living close to his extended family and speaking in his mother tongue, Suarez recently said he "feels as if he were living in Uruguay".
But the season began with Suarez in purdah. Banned from "any football related activity" after biting Chiellini, Suarez was denied a presentation and barred from going to the club's training ground.
He stayed fit by running along beaches and the roads of the Tibidabo mountain overlooking Barcelona. He avoided speaking to the media and was afraid of stepping out in public.
He admitted: "I didn't even feel like a footballer and I didn't feel like I was going to work."
Suarez's debut was a 3-1 defeat at Real Madrid, followed by a loss on his Nou Camp debut to Celta Vigo, but he made his first real impact in an away game at Almeria, coming off the bench to provide both assists in a 2-1 turnaround. Although he did not score his first league goal until two months after his debut, he already had the fans - and players - on his side.
"The best thing about Suarez is that he fights for every ball. Players in La Masia are not taught to do that," says Jordi Quixano of El Pais. "Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro have never been up for a fight. Suarez is the opposite."
He has also won the players over. And not just Messi. "He's a very hard working player, a team player, and that's not easy to find," says Jordi Alba.
Gerard Pique adds: "He is a different style of player to those we had before. Xavi and Iniesta are really sweet and you enjoy watching them with the ball. With Luis Suarez it is the other side: he fights." (©Daily Telegraph, London)