He entered the arena like a middleweight boxer, stretching his neck muscles left and right and making that toothy grimace of his which has been missing from the English game for 157 days. “Champing at the bit,” as Brendan Rodgers so unfortunately put it this week.
And though he was missing that little edge, like any player who had not known this kind of place since April would do, Luis Suarez’s part at the fulcrum of Liverpool revealed that 80 per cent of him equates to 100 per cent of everyone else. The game was only seven minutes old when he was heading the ball into the path of Kolo Touré as the two of them prepared a counter-attacking excursion from in front of the Liverpool defence. Alexander Buttner needed to drag Touré down to put a stop to it.
Suarez’s first good look for Liverpool at an opposition goalkeeper in five months came about five minutes later when that dreamy left foot of Jose Enrique’s clipped a looping cross which Jonny Evans could not compute the trajectory of in time to make a leap. Suarez, shirt hanging out, lurked behind him with menace, ready to go to work, though his first touch was too heavy and took the ball spinning too close to David de Gea. The striker was quick to offer a diplomatic hand to the young goalkeeper when he had followed in on him.
There were more of the Suarez trademarks which Liverpool people find so familiar now – intuiting that Victor Moses was standing behind when he spun a ball into the new signing’s path; stretching his arms out in supplication after a pass not sent to him; cupping his hands at a Moses chance missed; screaming at Touré for a mild misdemeanour. His clearest opening of the night came a little before the hour mark, when with nothing between him and De Gea he screwed a 25-yard shot wide.
There were no signs that Daniel Sturridge will not fit into the puzzle now that Suarez is back to cause Rodgers a conundrum. The Englishman retained the central role with Suarez working around him and their occasional interplay was slick, though Sturridge could not stamp his mark on the United area. The Liverpool threat, potent after United’s early charge had been quelled, never quite reached those heights again.
There was a time, as the game drifted into its last quarter, when the symmetries between the sides were spectacular as their two recalcitrant players revealed why their managers had been so determined not to sell them to any club, at any price. Rodgers watched Suarez earn a free-kick from Phil Jones after 70 minutes and slam it straight on to the crossbar. A few minutes had elapsed when David Moyes, who had wooed Wayne Rooney with the captain’s armband, watched him wring two big saves from Simon Mignolet with shots delivered with electricity.
The difference between the sides was a United defence’s capacity to make amends for the failings of the Manchester derby. Moyes keeps saying he is getting to know about some of the players he has inherited at Old Trafford. Evans, Jones and Chris Smalling answered some questions here.
For Rodgers, there were many compensations. The satisfaction that Suarez had passed through this cauldron without incident – no dives, no square-ups, no champing and not a flicker of response to the deafening abuse that rang out intermittently. And the reminder that, though a competition is over for him, his club have rediscovered a missing 20 per cent without laying out a penny on the transfer market for it. Of course, we know that the narrative is never that quite straightforward when Suarez is the protagonist. He certainly has the potential to take this Liverpool back to Europe’s top table. Whether his temperament will allow him to do so is anyone’s guess.