There can be no greater acknowledgement of Luis Suarez’s brilliance this season than Patrice Evra’s vote for the Uruguayan in the PFA Player of the Year poll. Given the history between these players, and the overall Liverpool-Manchester United rivalry, it was a remarkably mature gesture that bore testimony to the kind of form Suarez has displayed for the champions-elect during this campaign.
Yet there is one minor detail that will no doubt rankle even his most ardent supporters: Suarez’s big-match statistics. In 5 games against the other top 4 sides, Suarez hasn’t scored a single goal. In the most recent encounter, Manchester City at Anfield two weeks ago, he was fully expected to dominate an immobile Martin Demichelis. Not only did Demichelis deal with him fairly well, Suarez came off worse in a few take-ons and was lucky not to be sent off for a second bookable offence (diving).
0 in 5 is a surprisingly lopsided figure, but one that does little justice to Suarez’s impact on the side this season. He is Liverpool’s main creative outlet and his nuisance value for opponents extends beyond shooting at goal. The free role created for him by Brendan Rodgers has allowed the Uruguayan to drag defenders all over the place, creating space for others to thrive.
At different times during the Merseysiders’ title charge, Suarez has set Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho up to find the net. Defenders are so terrified of Suarez that they often ignore more obvious threats; at Stamford Bridge for example, his grappling in the penalty box distracted Branislav Ivanovic long enough for Martin Skrtel to pounce.
Suarez was the Reds’ sole CF in that match, as well as at the Etihad. He was at times outnumbered 3 to 1 upfront; yet he teed up Coutinho for the opener against City with a wonderful bit of skill, and again set up Sterling for the opening goal in the reverse fixture. After the 5-1 against Arsenal, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking noted the similarities between Suarez’s role during the match and Lionel Messi’s during the 5-0 clasico in 2010: neither player scored a goal, but they were the best players on the pitch, created multiple chances and were unlucky not to get on the scoresheet. And Liverpool haven’t done too badly without his goals at home: 3 other players stepped up to deliver against City.
However, the whispers about big-game bluntness won’t escape him that easily. The difference is starker when you consider his ruthlessness against even marginally weaker sides (against Spurs, Everton and Man United he has 6 goals in 5 EPL games). It cannot be mentality: Suarez is a supremely gritty character, and has bloody-mindedly driven his team to the pinnacle of the league this season.
Due to lead the attack against Chelsea at Anfield today, he will stride onto the field a far calmer figure than the one who sank his teeth into Ivanovic in the corresponding fixture last season. With Sturridge unlikely to start, Suarez will marshal Liverpool’s press against the Chelsea backline. This is the perfect chance for him to settle the title race and, with it, any lingering doubts.