Dion Fanning: Luis Suarez demonstrates his lust for life
For fifteen minutes at the Etihad, this was Luis Suarez as people in England never knew him.
He was self-effacing, humble and hesitant. If a team-mate was in a better position, he tried to find him and, more surprisingly he failed. Then Vincent Kompany misjudged a cross, the ball dropped at Suarez’s feet and he swept in his eighth goal of the season.
The goal meant more than the numbers. Barcelona had an away goal in a Champions League game but it also had more significance than that.
Suarez had returned to England as a reshaped player. His understated, unselfish performances have won him admiring reviews in Barcelona but in his early months he has not been the elemental force that he was for Liverpool. It was as if Iggy Pop had joined a barber shop quartet or, indeed, taken up golf.
In the opening stages, it was easy to see this version of Suarez but the first goal brought some of the old forces to the surface.
Suarez had said Kompany was probably the toughest defender he had faced during his time in England but last night City’s captain allowed him to find his old venom.
Within half an hour, Suarez had scored again but that goal was a reminder of how this Barcelona side works and why things have changed for Suarez.
In Suarez’s case, he - along with Neymar - is part of a trio but he knows that Lionel Messi is the dominant one.
“Most of us understand that our reference is Leo,” Sergio Busquets said in an interview this week. “He is the one that makes the difference. He is the one who gives us something that other players can’t. And it is important for new players to know that and not let it affect them.’
Messi made the difference so often against City, especially once it had quickly been established that Pellegrini’s side were unclear how to deal with him - something which isn’t especially deserving of criticism - but, more damningly, they appeared to have few ideas about how to approach the game at the most fundamental level.
Messi set up the second goal with a typical piece of stealth, drawing the City defenders and humiliating Pablo Zabaleta before releasing Jordi Alba on the left. Messi wanted the ball back but Suarez had made the kind of run that demanded attention. Alba delivered and Barcelona had a two-goal lead.
If the second half allowed City to find some hope, especially once Sergio Aguero had scored and Joe Hart had saved a Messi penalty in injury-time, it was more a show of defiance after the first half humiliation.
Despite Suarez’s goals, Messi’s brilliance was the difference, the thing that made it clear to City that they were struggling during a long 45 minutes.
In his interview this week, Busquets was happy to praise Suarez’s contribution. “He gives us so much. The numbers at the moment are not the same as they were at Liverpool but the way Barca play is not the way Liverpool play, he is not the player receiving the final pass as often.”
Manchester City’s selection appeared to play into the hands of the reshaped Barcelona. City’s selection with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero upfront suggested they would try and test any vulnerability in the Barcelona side but that was all speculation as, from the early moments, it was hard to work out what City’s intentions were.
Manuel Pellegrini’s selection had surprised many. He was playing with two forwards and James Milner in central midfield. “That’s asking Fernandinho to do a lot of work,” one man in the media centre said sensibly beforehand before it was pointed out that Fernando was anchoring the midfield.
Fernandinho spent the first half on the bench but he had more of a positive influence on the game than Fernando. “We’re not really here,” the City fans chanted as normal but they could have been talking about their midfield.
City were clearly nervous in the opening minutes but by the end of the first half, that tentative opening looked like their golden moments.
Messi was coming deep to terrorise what was nominally City’s midfield and all danger came from there. On nights like this, it is hard to see why anyone else would be the reference point but Neymar and Suarez floated dangerously around him and the pair combined after another piece of Messi skill but Joe Hart came out to prevent Suarez.
This was Barcelona as a passing force, something which has been sacrificed at times under Luis Enrique as they search for their forwards quickly.
The absence of a City midfield ensured that Barcelona readjusted and they kept possession for long periods, all the time knowing that Messi was lurking and Suarez was electric.
The second half was different as City started aggressively and they might have got more from the game if Dzeko hadn’t wasted an early header.
In the end, they could be hopeful. Malaga beat Barcelona at Camp Nou last weekend so they will think that anything is possible. Yet when it comes to making the impossible a reality, Barcelona have one or two advantages.