MADRID: Luis Suarez reunites with Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday and for another 90 minutes, a fans’ favourite and cherished former club will have to be enemies again. The last time Suarez met Liverpool in Spain was also the first time since he left the club five years earlier in 2014 and it was the Uruguayan who set the tone.
He slid in studs up, not for a tackle but a finish, and without a moment’s hesitation celebrated, circling around the back of Liverpool’s goal, his arms outstretched, grinning. He had scored 82 goals in 133 games for them, won a cup with them, been defended through racism and biting scandals by them, and earned their adoration as one of their greatest ever players.
But there at Camp Nou, in the crackle of a Champions League last-16 tie, there was no sign of restraint, let alone remorse. Suarez had given Barcelona the lead against Liverpool and nobody could say he was not relishing every second of it.
In the build-up to the second leg at Anfield, he switched back. He spoke of his close relationship with Liverpool’s staff and how his children learned the excitement of football in the city. He posed for a photo, giving a thumbs up next to the club’s crest on a wall.
None of that was insincere. Liverpool was the club that raised Suarez from a precocious talent at Ajax to one of the most feared strikers in the world. With them he had shared joy and despair. When Liverpool missed out on winning the Premier League in 2014, a pivotal defeat by Crystal Palace left him crying under his shirt.
But now Suarez was celebrating their disappointment and the Liverpool fans remembered. In the second leg they booed and heckled as Suarez got to work again. He flicked the ball away as Liverpool tried to take a throw. He confronted Fabinho, hoping to stir a reaction. Fabinho was booked for the challenge that followed, Suarez rolling on the floor, hands clasped around his leg.
“I just can’t get enough,” the Liverpool fans once sang. Now it was: “Cheat, cheat, cheat”. Liverpool triumphed, an historic comeback turning a 3-0 first-leg defeat into a 4-3 win on aggregate, Suarez’s anguish only adding to the satisfaction.
They adored Suarez playing for them but despised him playing against them and at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday, they will expect nothing different. In an interview with the BBC last year, Steven Gerrard talked about Suarez agitating even his teammates in training.
“He went against them, he struggled with them, he raised his elbows and I thought, ‘This is not what you normally see in training’,” Gerrard said. “Normally, you see a lot of respect, but Luis would crush anyone.”
It was that same drive and defiance that made Suarez join Atletico Madrid after being cast off by Barcelona. Suarez told Diario Sport this month he was “treated like he was 15” by Ronald Koeman and the club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, “leaked that he was damaging the dressing room”.
Suarez had not enjoyed his best season for Barca and there was an argument to say his style was depriving the team of a more mobile, free-flowing attack. But he wanted to show he still belonged to the elite and wanted to show Barcelona close up.
He scored 21 goals in 38 games for Atletico last term and the one goal that won them the title. Diego Simeone called it “the Suarez Zone”, a tendency to deliver when it matters most, and before the international break, there he was again, scoring in 2-0 win over Barcelona.
He celebrated by making a phone gesture in the direction of Koeman, seemingly in reference to their 40-second goodbye call. It was also his fourth goal in as many games for Atletico, easing concerns that a 34-year-old with an aching knee might not burn so brightly in his second season. But Suarez is at his best when defiant, with an opponent to prove wrong and a moment to seize. Liverpool remember it well.