Can this really be Luis Suarez, the man branded the "Cannibal of Ajax" by the Dutch press for gnawing an opponent's shoulder and given unprintable names for handling a piece of World Cup history away from Ghana, standing insouciantly in a Melwood meeting room sipping maté, a South American herbal tea, through the silver tube Uruguayans know as a bombilla?
It is. Suarez is wearing sandals, too, and the sound of him talking yesterday was equally at variance with the malevolent image Liverpool's £22.8m striker brought to the Premier League – the hands that deprived Ghana a first World Cup semi-final place for Africa being as much a part of the legend as the teeth that did for PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal and resulted in a seven-week ban last year. "My girlfriend says if I was like how I am on the field when I'm off it, she would not be with me," Suarez says.
We should not be entirely distracted. Asked if his image worries him, Suarez says "not at all" and he has steadfastly defended his actions in South Africa as an instance of his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for his nation. But Suarez is not all that he has been painted. The way he nods over the question of United potentially overhauling Liverpool's record 18 English titles indicates a level of football intelligence, and he welcomes the idea that destroying United's possible makeshift central defence of Wes Brown and Chris Smalling tomorrow would improve his reputation. "It would be great if people in this country had a positive image of me as a striker and as a player," he says. "It would be much better for them to think of me scoring goals and playing well, rather than just for the handball in the World Cup. I'd love to change that impression of me."
The 24-year-old's interest in fixtures like tomorrow's is not just the product of his handsome new contract. When Suarez – who was born in the city of Salto near Uruguay's border with Argentina – was growing up with the grandparents who cared for him in Montevideo as he was accelerating through the youth ranks at Nacional, the players who struck him from televised Liverpool-United games were Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard, interlinking in the way Kenny Dalglish hopes Suarez soon will with Andy Carroll. "They were very good together," he says. "I don't know when it was exactly, but I remember watching those games." If he remembers United players from those days then he isn't telling.
There is one member of the former United contingent close to his heart, of course. Diego Forlan, the compatriot with whom he revealed such a telepathic understanding in South Africa, is remembered for little at Old Trafford except the two strikes in the space of three minutes against Liverpool in December 2002 which propelled him from being United's "Diego Forlorn" to, in the words of Sir Bobby Charlton, "a legend". The Forlan song they still sing in the Stretford End tells how "he comes from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry".
The two Uruguayans still speak often and "yes, [Forlan] told me that [this] is the most important game of the year for [United] as it is for us," Suarez says. "I know that of all the games in the season this is the one that both most want to win. That the United fans still sing that about Diego shows the power of the fixture. It shows it is a very important game. I have played a lot of big derbies in Holland, Uruguay and for the national team against Argentina and Brazil, so I am calm. I am used to playing derbies. The team is in a good place at the moment. I am confident the team will know how to play this game."
"El Pistolero" has already demonstrated evidence that he will know how to play, too. While Sir Alex Ferguson waited eight months and 27 games for Forlan to score his first goal, after paying £7.5m to buy him from under the noses of Middlesbrough, Suarez required all of 13 minutes after arriving from the bench against Stoke City. There was something rather providential about that goal, bearing out Suarez's view that "through my career, I have had a lot of luck. At Nacional and at Groningen [the Dutch club where he began his European career], when I tried to beat a defender and it didn't work, the ball would always end up at my feet somehow. Maybe it is instinct, but a lot of it is luck."
The word the Uruguayans have for this is picardia, a form of cunning and devilishness, which can describe players with a propensity to win penalties, stand on your foot, though not take a lump out of your shoulder ("Maybe he was hungry," was his Ajax manager Martin Jol's attempt to joke about the Bakkal incident). Suarez agrees he has picardia though he limits its definition to being in the right place at the right time, which is part of it. "I think it is hard to explain, but a little of this is important," he says. "[Ruud] Van Nistelrooy and Raul have it. They had the ability to be in the position they needed to be in when they needed to be there. It is being in the right place at the right time. In Ajax and Groningen, I scored a lot of goals being in the right place at the right time."
Judging by his rather bold career path, Suarez has never struggled to settle in a new town. He was a mere 19-year-old when the love of his life, a girl (now his wife) called Sofia, up and left Montevideo when her family relocated to Barcelona. Desperate not to lose her, he engineered an €800,000 move to Groningen – one short flight away. "I was in Groningen, in a very small town when I was only 19 and my girlfriend was just 16," he says. "We were very young then and so it is much easier now, when we are more mature. And I have my maté. That is very important."
Ah yes, that drink which some of his team-mates are still getting their heads round – made by putting dried herbs derived from a species of holly in hot water and sipped cold throughout the day. The verba herbs are imported and mushed in a gourd he bought in Uruguay. The flask is English, though, and if he can put one past Edwin van der Sar tomorrow he will become an honorary Englishman in Liverpool eyes.
Suarez has, at last, spent a week training with Carroll, though the £35m man is unlikely to feature as more than a substitute tomorrow. "He is very tall, he is very good in the air and he has great feet. But you have to remember that defenders here are also very tall, they are also very good in the air," Suarez says. "That is why the duels between the two are very good to watch. I still don't know how they would cope with him, though."
Suarez does not deal in pleasantries about United's absentees. "It is important for us that neither [Nemanja] Vidic nor [Rio] Ferdinand will be there, but any player who is at United is there for a reason," he says. "We know this game is important not just for three points but because we have to stop United winning the title, because of the rivalry between the two teams and because we currently have the same amount of titles," he says. "I know it would be a prize for us to stop them winning the league." The last bit seems like a tall order but Suarez seems to know his stuff already. Or maybe has seen something in those herb leaves.
Five legendary matches between the old enemies
1988: Liverpool 3-3 Man Utd
Manchester United went 3-1 down to goals from Peter Beardsley, Steve McMahon and Gary Gillespie but Bryan Robson (with his second) and Gordon Strachan put United back on level terms. Liverpool went on to take the title, but United pushed them hard.
1994: Liverpool 3-3 Man Utd
United took a 3-0 lead with goals from Ryan Giggs, Steve Bruce and Denis Irwin. However, a double from Nigel Clough and a bullet header from Neil Ruddock temporarily saved Liverpool manager Graeme Souness from the sack.
1995: Man Utd 2-2 Liverpool
The match signified the triumphant return of Eric Cantona following his kung-fu kick suspension. The Frenchman earned United a point from the penalty spot and celebrated by jumping on the post behind the goal. His strike followed two goals from Robbie Fowler after Nicky Butt's goal had put the home side in front.
2003: Liverpool 2-0 Man Utd
Liverpool upset the odds in the League Cup final at the Millennium Stadium and defeated a star-studded United side. Goals from Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen were enough to claim the trophy for Gérard Houllier's side.
2010: Man Utd 3-2 Liverpool
A Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick put paid to a spirited Liverpool fightback. Berbatov had put United 2-0 up before Steven Gerrard scored twice. The Bulgarian had the final say though, heading in with six minutes left but the match will be forever remembered for his spectacular overhead kick for United's second goal.Reuse content