Manchester United v Liverpool: Ahead of highly anticipated return - has Luis Suarez finally learnt his lesson?
Even manager Brendan Rodgers admits to being unsure if the explosive Uruguayan has changed but he knows that Liverpool depend on him
Don't let anyone be deluded about the fact that Luis Suarez has crossed a point of no return with Liverpool. He's strolling through the corridors of the Melwood training complex in his sandals again, sipping his Uruguayan Mate tea, and his manager is saying pretty things about him ahead of his expected return to competitive action at Manchester United on Wednesday night after the 10-game ban which has stretched through 157 long days. But an unfinished answer from the club's American owner, John W Henry, in a meeting room overlooking the city's skyline two months ago, gave the real picture of where this relationship stands.
It was 48 hours after Suarez publicly demanded to be allowed to talk to Arsenal and accused the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, of reneging on a promise to let him do so, when Henry was asked whether, all things considered, he regretted the way Liverpool had stood up for Suarez through the Patrice Evra controversy. "I wouldn't call it regret," he replied. "I would say that… what would I say? Suggestions please…"
The 64-year-old talked a lot that afternoon about an old baseball concept of "loyalty to the uniform". Suarez's way of agitating to leave, after all the club had supported him through, did not belong to Henry's notion of sport and as the American spoke, it was hard not to be transported back a few years or so to a lunch with Manchester City's chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, at the time Carlos Tevez had started his remonstrations about wanting to leave. Khaldoon, who like Henry cuts it in infinitely more sophisticated worlds than football, resolved right there and then he wanted Tevez out, on the club's own terms.
Khaldoon and Henry have faced the same problem, though: a deep dependency on the player who is the cause of all the trouble. That is why another topic of conversation with Henry – the apology that Rodgers had said Suarez must make before returning to train with Liverpool's first-team squad – has been glossed over. Rodgers has vaguely said he was "happy with the outcome" of their private conversation, and that was the end of it.
It was a Faustian pact Liverpool were forced to enter into with Suarez in late August, having displayed the resilience to say that he would not be leaving Anfield at any price. They got to keep the player most capable of enabling them to compete for a Champions League qualifying place this season and at some point in the depths of winter Suarez most likely will get a quiet amendment to that flaky clause in his contract, ensuring that he is free to leave for a Champions League club who bid £40m next summer, if Liverpool cannot offer him that level of competition. That is certainly where the Professional Footballers' Association's arbitration over Suarez has been heading.
Rodgers did well to suppress an ironic smile on Monday afternoon when he said that Suarez was "resilient and one of the strongest-willed characters I have ever met in my life". And that "I don't think he will bat an eyelid". He was actually discussing the question of whether Old Trafford, where the abuse of the Uruguayan will be as strong as ever, was the toughest place for him to return.
Time and again over the past week, Rodgers has been pinned to the wall of a side room at Melwood and fielded questions about Suarez. It is not just the journalist in you that hopes for some word or sign from him that this rapprochement between club and player is a charade – "all part of the dance," as Rodgers is fond of saying. There has been no such word. Don't the other players, who until Saturday's defeat to Southampton had won seven and drawn two of the 10 games without Suarez, feel indignant about the notion that it's all about Luis? "I don't think so," Rodgers said last Thursday. "The No 9s score goals and will always get the headlines."
He treads an intricate path, carefully bending every conversation back to the wonders of Luis because, in a footballing sense, Luis is a wonder. The supporters want to hear this, too, and they will sing about him because they know what they're going to see, whatever the opposition. "I have no hesitation," Rodgers said, to the question of whether Old Trafford, of all places, was an advisable place to restore him. "There is the history of the clash but it won't enter my mind." The "history of the clash" encompasses Evra, but also Suarez's shimmering run past Rafael da Silva, Michael Carrick and Wes Brown to produce one of the 2010-11 season's most luscious pieces of skill and set up the first goal of Dirk Kuyt's hat-trick in Liverpool's 3-1 home win over United. "I don't know how he did it," then manager Kenny Dalglish said.
It was when Rodgers was asked whether he is sure Suarez has learnt lessons from the aftermath of sinking his teeth into Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic in April, that he significantly seemed to falter. "We will see. We will see," he said. Suarez appears to provide the perfect territory for Dr Steve Peters, the sports psychologist Rodgers has engaged, who expounds on the structural opposition between the rational "human" part of the brain and the emotional, rash "chimp" component – the carrier of fear, emotion, compulsion and irrational thought and action. There is no indication that Suarez has asked Peters to manage his inner chimp.
What happens next with Suarez is therefore anyone's guess. There will very probably be fireworks and there may quite possibly be more suspensions. The task ahead for Liverpool, a proud club accustomed to better than this, is clear, though less than straightforward. Let Suarez help take them back to the highlands of Champions League football, with all the revenue and appeal to marquee signings that brings, and then look to the day when they can take him, maybe leave him, but not be dependent on him any more.
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