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Premier League

Luis Suarez makes Liverpool real contenders


On Saturday evening, Luis Suarez will come face to face with the club he could have joined. It was never quite clear why he wanted to go to Arsenal. If he craved Champions League football, there were other clubs who had a better record in the competition. If he was sick of the English press and their intrusion into his family life, it made no sense to move to the city where their newspapers are produced.

Arsenal’s failure to force through the transfer benefited both clubs. Arsène Wenger spent the £40m-odd earmarked for Suarez on Mesut Özil, a signing as revolutionary as Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry. The Uruguayan, against every expectation, found himself still on Merseyside, although this season he has been happy to parade his family for the cameras.

His hat-trick in a 4-1 win over West Bromwich Albion in a performance as compelling anything Liverpool have produced this season made the rehabilitation complete. The standing ovation was expected but also heartfelt.

Suarez is precious to Anfield. Even during the years of slow decline, Liverpool always possessed a footballer that any club in Europe would covet, be it Michael Owen, Fernando Torres or Suarez. He is still theirs.

One of the last banners to be removed from the Kop was a jibe at the club’s chief executive, Ian Ayre, reminding him that they are “supporters not customers”. However, Ayre and his manager, Brendan Rodgers, have handled Suarez well. Like David Moyes with Wayne Rooney, Liverpool have the advantage of dealing with a street footballer, someone who is happiest centre stage with a ball at his feet.

“It was a very difficult summer for him and everyone at Liverpool,” said Rodgers. “But once he was told we were not going to sell he has worked as hard as anyone.

“I knew once the decision was made it would be hard for him initially but he would get his head down. That is in his nature. He is not one to fake or feign injury and sit in the treatment room. Once he gets out there, his love of football takes over. As a club we had to make a stand and it is paying off for us and for him.”

The question now is whether Liverpool are genuine contenders. Boaz Myhill in the West Bromwich goal thought so, saying that Daniel Sturridge and Suarez were as good as any strike pairing in the league. “If they score an early goal at Anfield, they will be a match for anyone.”

Suarez scores big goals in big games. In his last six matches against the five leading teams from London, Manchester and Merseyside, he has found the net in four. When describing the best save of the match, the one in which he pushed Suarez’s overhead kick onto the crossbar, Myhill suggested why. “He is so sharp, I never even saw him hit it,” he said.

Wrapped in her Liverpool scarf, having flown in from Istanbul to watch the game, Caroline Wozniacki, the former world No 1 tennis player, appreciated the artistry as perhaps only another elite athlete can. She had once warmed up for the Qatar Open in a signed Steven Gerrard shirt. Perhaps it is time for a change of name.

This may be Liverpool’s best start to a season since 2008 but if you flick through one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s books – not his autobiography but the account of the Treble-winning season – you will see Aston Villa streaking ahead through the early pages, setting a pace they were never able to sustain. Neither Arsenal nor Liverpool have much depth.

And their fate may be decided away from Anfield in a sequence that sees them go to Arsenal, Everton,  Manchester City and Chelsea with a  journey the length of the M62 to Hull squeezed in between.

Rodgers did not beat any of the  current Champions League sides in his first season at Liverpool. If they are in the top four when the final whistle goes at Stamford Bridge on 29 December, then 2014 may be the year that, with Ferguson gone, Liverpool clamber back onto the perch that he swept them from.