Saturday 20 January 2018

Teamwork and tea help Suarez settle in Barca

Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez takes part in a team training session
Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez takes part in a team training session

Pete Jenson

It was nine months ago and in many ways the rivals were Manchester City just as they are tonight. Luis Suarez's final Premier League appearance came last May in a 2-1 win over Newcastle at Anfield, with the title race against City going to the wire.

Manuel Pellegrini's team were 50 minutes up the M62 at the time, beating West Ham 2-0 to mean Liverpool's victory was in vain. There would be no league title in Suarez's final season in England.

Liverpool supporters presented the striker with the annual Golden Samba Player of the Season award and he took his two children and wife around the perimeter of the pitch for the last time.

Tonight's atmosphere at the Etihad will be a little less subdued and a lot less friendly. City will be the direct rivals this time and Suarez goes up against Vincent Kompany, whom he describes in his autobiography Crossing the Line as "probably the hardest defender I faced in the Premier League. . . one of the best in the world in his position".

He does so after the strangest of starts to his Barcelona career. Suarez has managed to score only seven times in 22 games in total - with only four goals in La Liga - and yet has won over supporters who have looked past the £75m price tag and the missed opportunities, and seen the work rate, the assists and the fact that while the forward might not be flying, the forward line most definitely is.

The greatest demonstration of the Nou Camp learning to love the non-scoring Suarez came two weeks ago in a Copa del Rey semi-final first leg when he chased down the Villarreal defender Mateo Musacchio, robbed him of possession and crossed for Lionel Messi to put Barcelona in front.

Supporters chanted the name of the assist provider and not the goalscorer.

Messi has scored 37 goals and alongside him Neymar has found the net 24 times, but midfielder Sergio Busquets sums up the pro-Suarez feeling in the Barça dressing-room when he says: "Since he arrived he has given us a lot more power up front and he opens the space up for other players with his running off the ball."

There is an understanding of the lack of goals. "We don't play the way Liverpool play; he is not receiving the final pass as often," Busquets says. The Spain international has made a career toiling for Xavi and Andres Iniesta. There is a sense that Suarez has a similar job to do alongside Messi and Neymar.

His movement across the opposition's defence, bouncing off defenders and showing for passes with his back to goal, has helped clear space for both his strike partners. His runs into right and left channels drag defenders into areas they don't want to occupy and when his markers do not track him, they often end with crosses that finish up in the net.

No one doubts the goals will start to flow. His acrobatic scissor-kick volley against Levante two weeks ago was one of Barcelona's goals of the season so far. But he looks more like topping the assists chart - he has clocked up 12 so far in his 22 games.

"Perhaps voices outside the team might say: 'Luis needs to score more goals,'" says Busquets. "But I don't care if he doesn't score more goals if he keeps working for the team the way he has so far."

Even though his new role has satisfied the supporters, Suarez could still have been forgiven for missing being the main man. But the signs were there at Liverpool last season that it is something which is not his greatest concern.

When Brendan Rodgers signed Daniel Sturridge in January 2013, the Liverpool manager sensed the potential for friction between his two centre-forwards and took Suarez (below) to one side for a quiet chat. He explained that the arrival of a new forward was no reflection of a lack of faith in the old one.

But there never was any strife. Suarez played deeper or wider when necessary and, although they never became friends off the pitch - he never joined in Sturridge's celebratory goal-dance and Sturridge never shared the Uruguayan's favourite herbal tea, mate - together they formed the club's best strike partnership in the Premier League era.


Someone prepared to share the limelight with Sturridge for the good of the Liverpool team was never going to take offence at having to be in Messi's shadow from time to time.

"It helps that they get on well together off the pitch," says coach Luis Enrique. The mate-sharing sessions with Messi and Javier Mascherano have certainly helped his assimilation. It is also true that he could not have picked two more influential friends: Messi the club's most important player and Mascherano the dressing-room leader - "little boss" by nickname, and little boss by nature.

Suarez has settled into his new surroundings, too. "He's happy here," says Busquets. "He wanted to come here. Part of his wife's family is from here and he visited a lot when he was at Ajax and Liverpool."

To a certain extent some of the privacy he enjoyed in England has been lost. There were fewer autograph hunters outside Liverpool's Melwood centre than there are every day at Barcelona's training ground.

But in the small coastal town of Gava just to the south of Barcelona, where Mascherano, Messi and Luis Enrique are all neighbours, he is happy away from the spotlight, both on and off the pitch

With Messi the king, and Neymar heir to the throne, the focus is often on others once the ball starts rolling. And such are Barcelona's problems with transfer bans, tax investigations and presidential elections, the Uruguayan is rarely the story off the field either.

Tonight the lenses will be on him, just as they were last May as Liverpool's dream of winning the league petered out but his own chance of picking up the Golden Shoe for the most European league goals in one season remained alive.

He admits to a rare show of selfishness in that very last Liverpool appearance because he felt his team-mates were running the clock down against Newcastle while he wanted another goal to pip Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo to the prize.

"We were winning and players were gesturing for us just to keep the ball but I was saying the opposite. I wanted us to attack and to go forward," Suarez says. In the end he stayed on 31 goals and shared the prize with Ronaldo.

This season there will be no repeat of that feat. He has only scored four times in the league and trails Ronaldo by 25 goals. It will not matter if at the end of the season he ends up with more silverware than the Real player.

Having the Golden Shoe presented to him last November by Kenny Dalglish in Barcelona felt good. But individual honours can never make up for the ultimate failure of not winning the league last season, having come so close. Team trophies are what count and, for someone who broke records at Ajax and Liverpool, to have won only two domestic cups is a poor return.

A Champions League medal at the end of the season would help restore the balance. And if the winning goal comes from Neymar or Messi after a Suarez pass, neither the player nor the Barcelona supporters will care in the slightest. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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