Saturday 17 February 2018

Suarez needs spell in finishing school

The problem with making a saint of someone is that it can be hard to accept he might be a sinner, too. Somewhere beyond the martyrdom which has engulfed Luis Suarez, there must be space for him to be assessed for what he is -- a supremely gifted player with a heart of darkness -- without that being read as an accusation that he is predisposed to racial prejudice.

When the dust had settled on another cold, goalless night with Suarez crackling at its centre, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was left to reflect yesterday on the hard fact that for all the anticipation and excitement which has come to surround the holder of Anfield's iconic No 7 jersey, he is a player with a painfully poor chance-conversion rate.

There have been 76 attempts on goal from him this season, of which he has put away only five: at a 6.6pc success rate, he actually trails Andy Carroll.

It is not Suarez's fault that he carves out so many chances, of course, and his ability to do so is part of the quality best defined by Wolves manager Mick McCarthy earlier this season.

"He never does what you expect him to," McCarthy said. "You think he is going to pull the trigger, then he cuts it back. You think he is going to come short and he cuts in behind you. He is something else."

Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that now, with the controversy of his ban behind him, he needs a calm space to construct the kind of scoring record -- 81 goals in 110 Eredivisie games -- which left Ajax resigned to his departure months before he left for Merseyside.

Liverpool fans sing that they "just can't get enough" of Suarez, but when he plopped a comfortable header into Brad Friedel's arms in the dying seconds of the goalless draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night, you felt that less mental energy might have meant more football focus.

"He has had a long break now and hopefully he will be fresh and ready to put in a performance (at Old Trafford) next weekend," his team-mate Glen Johnson said of Suarez yesterday, though in Dalglish's scrutiny of Monday night's match DVD, there was much evidence that Suarez will have chances created for him by his colleagues.

Suarez had been on the field for less than a minute on Monday before he and Steven Gerrard linked brilliantly, and it was also Gerrard who supplied the headed chance with which he ought to have prevented his side's eighth home draw in 12 games ("when you hear stats like that it doesn't sound good at all," Johnson admitted).

It was when Gerrard disappeared into his long struggle with groin trouble, a few years back, that Fernando Torres entered into the lonely, barren place which he has not vacated at Stamford Bridge, and amid the understandable anticipation of how Suarez and Carroll -- Liverpool's two most expensive signings -- might combine, it has rather been forgotten the really significant axis is Gerrard/Suarez.

It is the combination in which many of the most astute observers around Anfield, John Aldridge and Tommy Smith among them, see nascent echoes of Keegan and Toshack: not the kind of label which is applied lightly around here.

"I am about to pay Luis Suarez a major compliment," ventured Aldridge, before discussing him as a prospective Keegan.

Gerrard and Suarez have been on the field of play together for only 248 minutes in the Premier League this season -- fewer than three full games.

Dalglish has a part to play, too. His indefatigable support throughout the race case has undoubtedly created a bond which will be needed if Suarez is not afforded the chance to parade his skills on Europe's highest stage next season, but now there is a requirement to cease the noise which has sounded since the name Suarez and Evra became so inextricably bound up -- and to be still. Every new protestation of innocence stirs it up.

Perhaps Dalglish is aware of how Suarez's days at Ajax ended after he had bitten PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal on the shoulder, in November 2010.

His manager, Martin Jol, made a dreadful attempt to cover the incident with humour ("maybe he was hungry") but the near universal dismay felt by a Dutch nation for whom Ajax are a virtual extension of the national team, created an immediate sense that this incident, which brought a seven-game ban, was his point of no return in the country. Ajax were too pre-occupied with a dreadful run of league form to expend the same energy on him that Liverpool have.

But if Dalglish has examined Suarez's Ajax days, he will also have learned how Jol got perhaps more out of him than any other manager. When Jol took over from Marco van Basten, virtually his first decision was to make Suarez his captain, to the Uruguayan's own surprise. The result was an extraordinary scoring spree in Jol's first half-season at the helm which began to take his Dutch goalscoring ratio through the roof.

"Martin made me a better player," Suarez later reflected. "He made me feel important."

The lesson is that Suarez needs to be loved, but he needs also to be managed. It was when he felt responsibility becoming a burden, as Ajax proved themselves a selling club and began to fall apart, that his frustrations grew visceral and he left.

Liverpool are already thinking of Old Trafford in three days' time. "It is a tough place to go to, Old Trafford, and Luis is a strong character and he will try to let his football do the talking," Johnson concluded.

But it is a conversation that Suarez requires with those around him, and a more grown-up one at that. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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