It is hard being Luis Suarez. The Liverpool forward gets criticised when he doesn’t score goals — and when he does. The latest uproar over his handball in the game against Mansfield is the perfect example of how his reputation overshadows his performances.
And this season his performances have mostly been exceptional. Liverpool might be languishing in eighth place, but if it wasn’t for Suarez, their plight would have been much, much worse. Left to lead the line by himself after Andy Carroll was jettisoned; Suarez has been the unquestioned star of the team. His 15 goals – already four more than he scored all of last season – sees him trail only Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, who has 16, in the goal scoring charts.
The two won’t exactly go head to head when Liverpool meet Manchester United on Sunday, but there is a better than even chance that both will have prominent roles to play. If Liverpool are to have a chance of taking something from the game, Suarez has to be at his playmaking, goalscoring best. While much as been written about Van Persie this season, Suarez’s form has not received as much attention for two reasons: Liverpool’s position in the table and the negative side of Suarez.
It is the negative side that Liverpool need to worry about. Hopefully Suarez has learned from the Patrice Evra racism episode – even Alex Ferguson has said the matter is in the past – but his reputation for diving or simulation is something he needs to work towards correcting. If Suarez and allows himself to get wound up and takes his attention off the ball, Liverpool's most potent threat will be neutralised. They cannot afford to let that happen.
On the plus side of the ledger, there has been a consistency to Suarez's game that was lacking last season. Except for one lean run of six games, Suarez has not gone more than a couple of games without scoring, suggesting that he is learning to control his emotions. While the wastefulness that characterized his play in 2011-12 still rears its head – he has taken 123 shots for his 15 goals – he is more clinical in front of goal.
Just ask Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland, the two teams Liverpool hammered before the Mansfield incident. Against QPR, Suarez opened the scoring by sidestepping the defense and striking low past the goalkeeper. His second needed more luck – his cross bounced right back to him off a defender - but he still had to put it away.
Sunderland were treated to an even better demonstration by Suarez, though that had as much to do with a vintage Steven Gerrard performance. Suarez was released both times by Gerrard – cleverly poking the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs the first time and then latching onto a raking 60-yard Stevie G pass before firing home.
Both games showcased Suarez as predator, as the lethal finisher Liverpool have to have if they want to challenge for titles again.
Suarez’s talents have never been in doubt. At his best, he can unlock any defense in the world and he is capable of moments of genius. This season he has shown he can put a team on his back too. If he can learn to focus solely on playing football and putting the ball in the back of the net, then he just might end up as another Kop legend.