Tonight could see the return of Luis Suarez to the Liverpool starting line-up after his 10-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic. Despite being unavailable for selection, much has happened since he last appeared in a Liverpool shirt.
Their record on the pitch is played 10, won 7, drawn 2 and lost just once. Suarez could well find he lines up alongside just 4 players who played with him against Chelsea in April, Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas and Enrique. But it’s the opponents on Wednesday night who will fill the headlines beforehand. Suarez has form against Manchester United, and mainly in the shape of the punishment he received for his alleged abuse of Patrice Evra. There is an irony in this meeting between these two sides which has parallels back to 1995 when Eric Cantona returned from an 8-month ban for a kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter as he left the pitch after receiving a red card.
1st October 1995 Cantona was to make his first appearance for United since his infamous thuggery on 25 January. Within two minutes he had set up a goal for Nicky Butt, but was upstaged by two classic Robbie Fowler goals, including one where he eased Gary Neville off the ball and chipped Schmeichel with impish impudence. United grabbed a draw with a penalty from Cantona, who grabbed all the headlines. In fact, he received a hero’s welcome more befitting a man who had returned from a career-threatening injury rather than one who had just avoided prison.
Cantona had threatened to leave United during his ban and Inter were favourites to pick him up. By August he asked the club to cancel his contract as he no longer wanted to stay in England. Eventually, the club offered him a new contract and Alex Ferguson managed to persuade him to stay.
Fast forward to this summer where Luis Suarez expressed his desire to leave Liverpool. It all started when he went to Uruguay for the World Cup Qualifiers and was interviewed by a local newspaper. Various people translated his comments any way they chose, but the nub of it was that he wanted to play Champions League football and Liverpool were aware of how he felt. He also claimed there was a witch-hunt against him by the British press. Now that last point has some value, as I have pointed out in a previous article. But soon the publicity bandwagon rolled into town and rumours of his request to leave the club were rife. It’s unclear whether he ever actually said he wanted to go, but it seemed likely Real Madrid would be his preferred destination.
As the summer moved on it became clear Real Madrid were unlikely to make a move for the player. They’d set their sights, or their assets, on Gareth Bale and were involved in a phony “will he-won’t he?” game of charades with Daniel Levy of Tottenham. Up stepped Arsenal who were desperate for a striker, having missed out on Higuain. Suarez agents apparently let Arsenal know there was a buy-out clause in his contract and a bid of £40m would trigger it. Once Arsenal made their bid, Liverpool then claimed the bid needed to exceed £40m so Arsenal added £1 on to test Liverpool’s metal. That still didn’t work. The bid seemed very odd as Arsenal had appeared reluctant to spend the £34m Napoli paid to secure Higuain.
As deadline day approached, Arsenal’s interest cooled and Bale’s well advertised deal appeared nearer and nearer and so Suarez was left out in the cold. In the end no club came in for the Uruguayan and so he returned to Mellwood for pre-season training.
He may well make his comeback tonight at Old Trafford but what type of reception will he receive?
There are many Liverpool fans who wanted him to go. Once you declare you’re interested in the advances of another, they don’t want you back. But there are others who are very glad he stayed and want to see him repeat his excellent form of last season when he was unlucky not to be nominated Player of the Year. Football fans can be a fickle lot and once a player comes back and starts playing well or scoring goals, all can soon be forgiven.
Personally, I am looking forward to seeing him again. It’s inevitable, given his history, he will want to play Champions League football and unless the club can offer him that he could well be off next summer. But that could be to Liverpool’s advantage. Suarez has much to prove. He will want to show he is worth another club signing him up and that he could be the piece they are missing, but he will also want to be in good form for the World Cup. It shouldn’t be underestimated how excited South America is about ‘their’ World Cup next summer and Uruguay are still to confirm their place. Suarez will be 27 in January and World Cup 2014 represents an ideal opportunity for him to be considered as one of the best players in the world. If he misses out then Russia 2018 at the age of 31 is not quite as palatable.
Luis Suarez has not hidden his respect for the Liverpool fans and has a great affinity with them, but many of them are hurt at the moment and will need persuading. Suarez may not be welcomed back into the fold as easily as he may wish, but reproducing the form of last season and contributing goals will go a long way towards forgiveness.
Suarez is a very emotional man and plays with his heart on his sleeve. His first goal on his comeback will be important. The longer we have to wait for that the more fans will question his commitment. Which could also play into the club’s hands as Suarez will not want to miss much football this season due to the reason’s I have just outlined, and so will need to return to form quickly rather than be frozen out on the bench. Of course, if his form is sufficient to influence those around him to qualify for Champions League football next season then there is unlikely to be any talk of a move. The one danger for Liverpool is that if he is keen on a move next summer he is unlikely to want to tie anything up until after the World Cup, and that may leave the club with little time to organise a replacement. If they’re sensible, the club will want some assurances from the player before he leaves for Brazil, assuming Uruguay get there.
One thing the ‘Suarez Affair’ does illustrate is that the club will always be around far longer than any player. We, as fans, always make the mistake of falling in love with players but after a few years of feeling let down by players such as Keegan, McManaman, Owen and Torres you re-affirm your desire to never let yourself be fooled again.
Should Suarez play and score tonight it will be a remarkable synergy with Cantona 18 years ago. At the end of the 1995-96 season United went onto win the title and it was Cantona who scored the only goal of the game to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. Liverpool would settle for something similar this season.