Suarez back to show mettle as Liverpool face Spurs
Kenny Dalglish provided the clearest indication of how affected he believes Luis Suarez will be by the all-engulfing race controversy when, in the eye of this storm, he was privately asked if he would consider sparing him the ordeal of playing at Old Trafford in the incendiary fixture which is now five days away.
The Liverpool manager's answer was such an emphatic "no" that it requires few powers of deduction to assume that he wants him straight back into his starting XI against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield tonight, after an eight-game suspension.
Dalglish has recalled how the striker they called "the iron man" at Ajax, because of his insistence on always playing, even badgered him to start in the Carling Cup at Exeter City (he opened the scoring in Devon) and the manager's prime motive for acceding to such a demand tonight is their mutual desire for Champions League qualification. Suarez, who has been back in training for two weeks, didn't move to Merseyside for anything less. It is hard to imagine that a player whose goal-line handball against Ghana in the World Cup quarter-final was followed so rapidly by celebrations of the Africans' penalty miss would flinch at the scrutiny which lies ahead. The sight of him drifting nonchalantly around Melwood, sipping South American herbal mate through the silver tube Uruguayans know as a bombilla, belies a need to be at the centre of everything.
Dalglish's assistant, Steve Clarke, compares Suarez to Gianfranco Zola, whom he worked with at Chelsea, in the way that "he likes to be involved in the action all of the time" and this characteristic is most germane to the question of whether he can pick up immediately where he left off. Suarez will be going somewhat to match Zola's first full-season impact – the Italian collected the Football Writers' Player of the Year award despite appearing in only seven months of the 1996-97 campaign – but his early years in Holland prove he never blinks.
When the Dutch club Groningen broke their transfer record to buy him from Nacional in 2006, on the basis of the 11,000-mile scouting mission the club's technical manager and managing director undertook to watch a different player, the 19-year-old Suarez wound up playing to empty stadiums in the Dutch reserve league. The 2006-07 season was only two months old when the teenager, in the shadow of Eric Nevland and the South African striker Glen Salmon, expressed his fury with manager Ron Jans over a decision to substitute him. A week later, two Suarez goals turned a hopeless situation against Vitesse into a 4-3 win. "Early on it was a bit of a struggle with Luis," said Jans, "but we got there in the end."
Liverpool were in a bad place in the 25-year-old's absence – the Reebok Stadium, two weeks ago, for a 3-1 defeat by Bolton Wanderers – though they have actually fared well without him. They were sixth when he disappeared from combat and they can leapfrog Arsenal to go sixth again if they beat Spurs tonight. That's only part of the story, of course. The significance of reaching the Carling Cup final was written in Dalglish's emotion on the night Manchester City were beaten, before the FA Cup defeat of Manchester United in a match arguably less significant, even if more symbolic, than tonight's.
"Luis can help us achieve what we set out to achieve – finishing top four and reaching two finals," said Steven Gerrard. Yet the significant point about Dalglish's options for tonight is that he also has Gerrard to select from, the minor muscle strain he felt against United having kept him out of the midweek win at Wolves. Amid the focus on how Suarez and Andy Carroll might combine for Dalglish's reconstructed Liverpool it has almost been forgotten that Gerrard – the man most likely to bring out goals in the Uruguayan – has been on the same field of play as him for just 69 minutes.
Liverpool's No 7 has been too prolific in his career – 81 goals in 110 Eredivisie games – to view nine strikes in the Premier League as a disappointment. It was Gerrard who always brought out the best in Fernando Torres and without whom the Spaniard, at Anfield and now Stamford Bridge, has never looked the same. It is Gerrard who has most potential to help Suarez fulfil the prophecy of John Aldridge, who declared after Suarez had destroyed United last March that "the way he plays the game reminds me of the first time I saw Kevin Keegan in a red shirt".