By Oliver Platt
The Ajax managing director, Rik van den Boog, promised Liverpool fans a “street fighter” when the Reds paid nearly £23 million to sign Luis Suarez 23 months ago. That characterisation has proved more accurate than even he might have imagined. Suarez has fought more than his fair share of battles in England and sometimes he has not come out of them in a flattering light.
One year after his lowest low, though, his star now shines brighter than ever. On the evening that ushered in 2012, the Football Association published the 115-page verdict produced by the independent disciplinary commission that investigated allegations of racial abuse by Suarez against Patrice Evra. The Uruguay striker’s evidence was described as “unreliable” and “inconsistent” and he was banned for eight matches.
Those two stinging criticisms could hardly be less applicable to Suarez the footballer. Few teams in the Premier League have relied on one man as much as Liverpool have Suarez this season. Having provided two assists and struck 13 times himself, he has been on the scene for nearly half of their 31 league goals in 2012-13.
On Sunday, the QPR defence was diced and demoralised within 16 minutes at Loftus Road. Suarez scored twice in that time and both goals were of nearly entirely his own creation. There was a video game quality to the way he scampered breathlessly around the attacking third of the pitch. “I can’t bear the idea of not trying to make the most of every single second,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in August.
His first goal is mesmerising to watch. Clint Hill’s shortcomings as a Premier League central defender are brutally exposed but that is to take nothing away from Suarez’s brilliance. Even after Hill is sent into a spin, after all, neither Stephane Mbia nor Ryan Nelsen can close in on him quickly enough.
The second is somewhat emblematic of the jackhammer style that is Suarez’s nature. Little more than five minutes have elapsed since the opening goal hit the net, but Suarez does not stop. He elects to try a pass across goal to Raheem Sterling, after a run in behind which perfectly evidenced his tireless nature. There is little more Nedum Onuoha can do than desperately slide in to prevent Sterling from converting and, in the process, return the ball to Suarez to slam into the roof of the net.
Only Robin van Persie, among the top flight’s leading hitmen, can justifiably argue that he has been better than Suarez this season and, perhaps, in 2012 as a whole. Van Persie leads the goalscoring charts having found the target 14 times, but his supporting cast, both at Manchester United and Arsenal, has been considerably stronger. He is also playing in his ninth Premier League season; Suarez has the experience of only one and a half.
“He’s been brilliant for us since he came to the club,” Gerrard told Sky Sports following the 3-0 victory in west London. “Week in, week out he shows what a top player he is. These players have only got to play against him twice a year; we’ve got to train against him every day. He’s a magician.”
But as Redknapp noted, this was nothing new. He was even better in a quite staggering display against Norwich in September, to give just one example. “I think I’ve seen him do that to everyone he’s played against this year,” Redknapp said. “It’s not something he’s just suddenly done today, is it? It’s what he is. He’s the most fantastic striker. He’s one of the best, in the half a dozen in the world, without a doubt.”
Suarez will never be universally loved, but that will not bother him one iota while he is so adored at Anfield. The allegations of racism were on another level of seriousness entirely but this is a player who has been frequently singled out as a diver and, according to Asamoah Gyan, became “the most hated person in Ghana” after his handball denied the African country a goal that would have secured their place in the semi-finals of the last World Cup.
Still he is met with regular boos, cries of ‘cheat’ and chants referencing the Evra case at Premier League stadiums. Twelve months ago he responded by raising his middle finger to Fulham supporters following a 1-0 defeat. Now, he lets his football do the talking, and Liverpool are enjoying the benefits.
Suarez will only get better, and the doubts at Liverpool now do not concern his worth but the club’s ability to grow as quickly as he is. Like it or not, 2013 could be the year of the street fighter.
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