The Uruguayan may have left Anfield under a cloud but he can expect a warm reception from Reds fans in Wednesday’s Champions League clash
He’s looking forward to this one, Luis Suarez, and no wonder.
It is coming towards five years since the Uruguayan swapped Liverpool for Barcelona but, on Wednesday night, it will be friends reunited as the sides meet in the most mouth-watering of Champions League semi-finals.
It promises to be a fascinating night. Emotional too, perhaps, for Suarez, who remembers his three-and-a-half years on Merseyside with fondness – despite the controversies which seemed to follow him around like the most dogged of man-markers.
Suarez left Liverpool under a cloud, a £65 million (€75m/$84m) signing who arrived in Barcelona banned from all football activity for four months after biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during the 2014 World Cup. He moved to Camp Nou in the July, but it would be October before he could make his first appearance.
For Liverpool, of course, Suarez’s exit was inevitable. He left as the club’s star man, the Premier League’s leading goalscorer and the PFA and Football Writers’ player of the year. In his final season, he had come agonisingly close to firing Brendan Rodgers’ side to an unlikely league title.
For Reds fans, the images of him at Selhurst Park, shirt covering his face as he sobbed uncontrollably, still make for painful viewing. They knew, and he knew, that the end had arrived.
Liverpool’s 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace that night didn’t cost them the title – the defeat to Chelsea a week earlier was the turning point – but it confirmed that Suarez would be leaving with nothing to show for his remarkable efforts. He made one more appearance for the club before heading off to Brazil for the World Cup.
The Liverpool he left, it should be said, is a different club to the one he will face this week. Expectations were lower, the squad was weaker, spending in the transfer market more frugal.
In Rodgers, they had a young, unproven coach trying to take the Reds back to the top of the tree. Their hopes were pinned on individuals; Suarez, along with Steven Gerrard, carried most of them.
Liverpool, in many ways, were grateful to get that magnificent 2013-14 season from Suarez. He had wanted to leave the club at the start of that campaign, waging an ugly public war as he tried to force a transfer to first Real Madrid and then, surprisingly, Arsenal.
“My reason for leaving is my family and my image,” he told a Uruguayan TV station. “I don’t feel comfortable here any more.”
He would go on to claim he had been “persecuted” by the British media, accusing them of going “too far” in their coverage of another biting controversy when he sank his teeth into Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic during a league game at Anfield.
It is a quirk of Suarez time at Liverpool that he did not miss a single match for the club due to injury, yet spent a total of 19 games suspended. He got 10 games for the Ivanovic incident and was banned for eight matches after being found guilty, controversially, of using abusive language towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in a game at Anfield in October 2011.
Suarez always contested that charge, in particular the suggestion that he had racially abused Evra.
“I’m still sad and angry to think that this is a stain on my character that will probably be there for ever,” he wrote in his 2014 autobiography.
Liverpool, for their part, can look back on that period and wince at the way they handled the entire affair. Nobody came out of it well.
By the summer of 2013, Suarez was set on leaving. Arsenal, memorably, submitted an offer of £40m and £1, believing that would trigger a release clause in the striker’s contract.
Liverpool’s response was firm – “What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?” principal owner John W Henry memorably tweeted. Arsenal never got close to a deal.
Suarez went public with his grievances, claiming Liverpool had reneged on a promise to let him leave if they failed to secure Champions League football (they finished seventh in 2012-13).
He gave interviews to a group of Spanish-speaking British journalists, in which he stated: “I have to put my career first… I’m 26, I need to be playing in the Champions League.”
Liverpool’s response to that, and to Suarez’s lack of application and focus at Melwood, was to banish him to train with the reserves. Meanwhile, Gerrard set about convincing the Reds’ star man to give it another year.
“Steven tells me ‘I promise that if you stay this year you’re going to take off and next year you’ll go to Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid or whichever one you want, but stay this year because you won’t be better off at Arsenal.’
“His words convinced me in that moment. They came from a person who cared for me, who wanted my well-being, who saw me suffer during training and saw me sad. They were words from a true captain that had an impact in that moment and helped me a lot.”
Gerrard was right. Suarez, having served the Ivanovic ban, delivered the best season of his Liverpool career. He scored 31 times as Rodgers’ men mounted a title challenge. “Footballing revenge,” one journalist called it.
Reds fans, bewitched by his extraordinary talent and will to win, could do little but admire. He wasn’t perfect, but blimey he was good. The memories will live long.
He can expect applause from the travelling Kop this week. He got a hero’s reception when returning to Anfield for a charity game in 2015, and has spoken warmly about the club in recent years. He is already looking forward to next week’s second leg on Merseyside.
“My kids never go to Champions League games but they want to go to this one,” he said recently. He plans to catch up with Jordan Henderson and a few of the Melwood backroom staff. “It’ll be nice to go back,” he added.
Before that, though, there is business to take care of. And when that whistle goes at Camp Nou on Wednesday, Liverpool know exactly what they are in for. They wouldn’t expect anything else from Suarez.
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