Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 March 2018

James Lawton: Explosive Uruguayan fuels belief Liverpool can finally detonate a bomb in the sky

Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez

Who wants to be nominated the 'new Bill Shankly' at a still formative stage of his big-time career?

We may get a better idea at the Emirates Stadium tomorrow evening but no one should be surprised if Brendan Rodgers handles the question with a new level of buoyancy.

Liverpool's 40-year-old manager has been flexing his muscles for some time now and taking down Arsene Wenger in mid-redemption would certainly provide a persuasive second punch in the one-two combination he launched while putting Alex Ferguson in his place a few days ago.

The question would not, after all, be entirely inappropriate. His great predecessor once claimed that he had a team that was going to "go off like a bomb in the sky" – and this was before they were within touching distance of the top spot in the old first division.

If Liverpool can build on last week's superb dismantling of West Bromwich Albion and at least take a share in the leadership of the Premier League, Rodgers might at least reasonably claim the possibility of a mid-sized detonation.

He was awash with satisfaction after a performance last week at Anfield which some gnarled observers rated the best from the team in years.

Former Anfield hero Ian St John was among them, saying: "When results weren't so good last season I said people should lay off Rodgers, give him a bit of time. I liked the football he was attempting to produce.

"Liverpool's football was again something which I was once familiar with, it was passing, intelligent football, and now there is some genuine firepower."

The growth of Rodgers, along with his team, was evident enough in his measured dismissal of Ferguson's onslaught on the reputation of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and the running style of the vastly improving Jordan Henderson.

It smacked of a young manager beginning to punch his weight and there was some of the same after the cutting down of West Brom, who of course recently gained the scalp of Manchester United.

"This was an absolutely top-class performance, I couldn't have asked more of any of my players," said Rodgers. "By the time of the transfer window we should be in a position to strengthen the squad and that can only be a bonus."

Rodgers draws on another at the Emirates when his Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho will be available again after a six-week absence following surgery on a shoulder injury.

Until the eruption of Luis Suarez after his long and fretful suspension, Coutinho and striker Daniel Sturridge were the most compelling reasons for Rodgers to believe his team could make a serious impact this season.

Now, and inevitably, Suarez in his current mood represents the most formidable, at times even unplayable strength, at what was so recently a broken place.

There are some who still believe, of course, that nothing good can come of Suarez at Liverpool. They say that for every stroke of the brilliance which makes Suarez not only arguably the most talented player in the Premier League but places him among a small elite of world players, a new betrayal lurks.

Last weekend there was natural ability and invention to burn, but what of tomorrow at the Emirates? What outrage might suddenly intrude on the future of a team which might be on the point of regaining so much lost ground?

Rodgers is, as perhaps he has to be, defiantly optimistic. He says: "I knew once I got the commitment from him in the summer he wasn't going to walk out. From then on, he's been great. It was a difficult summer for him but it was for everyone. But we managed as a club and he managed himself well."

Now Suarez and Sturridge are building a playing relationship verging on telepathy. So far they have scored 14 goals between them, with Suarez moving his ratio with Liverpool to 36 goals in 46 games.

Tomorrow the Uruguayan has every incentive to keep his demons at bay. Twice Arsenal moved for him in his summer of deep discontent. Twice he pleaded for his release. Wenger's frustration was profound, almost as much as the bewilderment with which some greeted his initiative. Was he not supposed to have built a lofty set of values at Arsenal?

Yet when it came right down to it, Wenger was living – as football men tend to under the gravest pressure – in the moment. He didn't know then that the clever Olivier Giroud would find a degree of potency in front of goal or that Mesut Ozil would arrive so full of running and pure creativity.

Nor that Aaron Ramsey would find again much of that authority which seemed to have disappeared in the tackle that shattered his leg.

The potential consequences of Wenger's failure to sign Suarez – and his Ozil windfall – could hardly be more intriguing. If Arsenal are playing with some of their old verve, and imagination, they are still at times painfully vulnerable at the back.

Borussia Dortmund reminded us of that with their ambush at the Emirates. It was a defeat that brought the worry lines back to Wenger's face and he can hardly have been reassured by anything more than a glimpse of Suarez's superb spontaneity against West Brom.

Rodgers' main worry, no doubt, is the superbly creative fluency of Ozil. The German's response to a big stage, and to a match of crucial importance for the belief that he can end the years of drought for Arsenal, is one of two key elements to a game which might just be remembered as one of the season's most significant.

The other is the extent of Suarez's ability to make clear the extent of Arsenal's loss when Liverpool were so emphatic that if he was a problem, and one which at times had so deeply undermined the club, he was, in all his complicated glory, no one else's property.

When Rodgers unleashes him tomorrow it is in the hope that a strange but compelling vindication might just be at hand.

It is the one that comes to football men who know that consistently good behaviour is one thing, winning quite another. Bill Shankly, we can be quite sure, would have understood.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport