Flawed but inspirational Suarez in vanguard of Liverpool’s impressive title challenge
In football as in most things timing is everything and the Anfield wait for that league success may soon be over
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez scores against Tottenham Hotspur during their Premier League match at Anfield. Photograph: Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
In his autobiography, Alex Ferguson declared that Liverpool would have to sign at least eight new players to become title contenders. Remember, that judgment of Ferguson’s was published as recently as last October.
Liverpool have signed no players since then and they lead the league with six games to go. They are scoring goals at the highest rate of any top-flight team since the second World War. Six more victories will guarantee a first league title in 24 years. This is as close as it gets in football to a miracle.
Sunderland last week became the seventh successive side beaten by Liverpool on a run that has taken them top. And manager Gus Poyet knows where the credit should go.
“Luis Suarez is showing every time that he is on the pitch that it is not about contracts or money with him,” said Poyet. “It is not about anything, it is just about beating you and winning the game. He wants to play for Liverpool as much as he wants to play for Uruguay. Without Suarez they would be mid-table.
“If he was at Arsenal, Arsenal would be top now. If he was at Man United, they would be the same. Chelsea and Man City have been bringing in a lot of players, but at every other team, he would easily make the difference.”
Admittedly, Poyet has been in the forefront of the Suarez fan club for several years now. While everyone else was castigating his compatriot for racially insulting Patrice Evra, Poyet accused Evra of “crying like a baby”. When Suarez was reviled for biting Branislav Ivanovic, Poyet’s take was: “He tried to bite someone on the arm . . . A little pain.”
Brendan Rodgers described Poyet’s mid-table assessment as “quite disrespectful to the other players”. “Exactly right” would have been more accurate. Take Suarez out of the Liverpool team and it’s impossible to see them top four.
It’s not just that he has scored or assisted 40 goals in the 28 games he’s played. It’s the dramatic psychological effect he is having on opponents and team-mates alike.
The second goal against Tottenham, which finished the contest, was an example of the kind of brilliance he is producing every week. He closed down Younes Kaboul to create a chance out of nothing, won a physical battle against a much bigger defender, accelerated with the ball and then rifled in a shot with his weaker foot. In the opinion of Glenn Hoddle, he scored from a position where the striker could be expected to fail “nine times out of ten.”
Suarez has produced untouchable moments like this so often that they’ve become routine. Knowing they are up against a genius demoralises opponents. After Suarez scored four goals against Norwich in December, Anthony Pilkington tweeted: “People who are moaning about defending just wait until you see the goals he has scored! What are you supposed to do when someone is doing that?!”
During his Sky Sports punditry debut last week, Paul Scholes was withering about Jack Wilshere’s lack of development since he burst on the scene five years ago. “He doesn’t look any better player now than he did when he was 17. He needs people like Vieira, characters like that, to take him on to the next level. Characters and leaders are important.”
Keep Scholes’s logic in mind when assessing progress made by Liverpool players like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho. They are reaping the benefit of playing alongside the most impressive model of competitive ferocity in the game.
Rodgers will also get plenty of credit but even the ultra-positive manager might admit to a sneaking sense of disbelief at how well things are going. Of the 11 players that started against Tottenham yesterday, eight were already at Liverpool when he arrived. Who knew these players had such potential?
In some cases the manager will be as surprised as anybody. He’s had his doubts about some of these players. Henderson was told he could join Fulham. Martin Skrtel began the season on the bench. Sterling barely kicked a ball in the first three months of the season.
Liverpool’s failure to sign Mohamed Salah or Yevhen Konoplyanka in January now looks like a stroke of good luck. Liverpool’s play has been so beautifully balanced that it’s hard to see how new signings could have improved it.
If there is still a doubt about this side, it concerns their ability to win the very biggest matches. Rodgers has not yet beaten Chelsea or Manchester City in six attempts with Liverpool. It’s one thing to slam four or five goals past spineless outfits like Arsenal or Spurs. It’s quite another to defeat Chelsea or City amid the stifling pressure of a title run-in.
Liverpool’s rivals have the money, the power, the experience and the know-how. But Liverpool have the momentum. After the weekend we’ve just seen, their rivals might have begun to fear that this season, destiny is spelled L-F-C.