Eleven months and three days ago, Liverpool‘s Luis Suarez threw away his chances of claiming the Premier League‘s Player of the Year award with one moment of absolute madness. He decided to take a bite of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s shoulder, in front of a 45,000-strong Anfield crowd, countless television cameras and a live world-wide audience reaching well into the multi-millions.
Already a controversial figure in England, the Uruguayan’s nibble on Ivanovic’s upper arm confirmed the opinion that such a provocative and self-admitted amoral player should not be allowed near the most coveted individual accolade in English football, regardless of his 23-goal haul and talismanic attacking displays for the Reds that without, would probably have left Brendan Rodgers fearing for his job last summer.
The award went to Gareth Bale instead, just a matter of months before his world-record-breaking £86million move to Real Madrid.
But when the Premier League’s peers gather together at the end of the season to decide who should claim the prize this term, few would be surprised at a near-unanimous verdict in Suarez’s favour.
The fact the 27 year-old has lasted an entire year without mortifying the English public is an achievement in itself that deserves some form of trophy-based reward, but Suarez’s expected overwhelming majority vote is sourced in the manner in which he’s used performances on the pitch and nothing else to answer his critics this season.
The Liverpool striker, despite missing the first five games of the campaign through his biting ban, is currently leading the Premier League’s scoring charts with an astonishing 28 goals in 25 appearances, including hat-tricks against West Brom, Norwich City and most recently Cardiff. But more than simply a lethal striker of your Andy Cole variety, the Uruguay star has claimed eleven assists – working in close attacking tandem with strike-partner Daniel Sturridge – and by Whoscored.com’s reckoning, has notched up 13 Man of the Match awards. That’s an average of more than 0.5 MoM’s per appearance.
But enough of signing Luis Suarez’s praises – no matter how much statistical evidence I can find in a finite amount of time to prove so, no matter how fruitfully eloquent I could explain how the Kop icon synergizes the roles of an attacking playmaker and natural poacher so perfectly and still works consistently harder than any forward on the continent, by now it goes without saying that Luis Suarez is a world-class talent, and if we are being truthful, a world-class talent that deserves a greater stage than Anfield.
So, like current Player of the Year award-holder Gareth Bale, who understandably ditched White Hart Lane for the Bernabeu just months after claiming the Premier League’s highest individual honour, does Suarez owe it to himself to answer his higher calling at the end of the season?
Don’t get me wrong – Liverpool is a fantastic club with an enormous history, and after their four-year absence from the Champions League has once again become an incredibly exciting institution to be a part of. This season, Brendan Rodgers has created a sense of fearlessness in his players that has not only revived the Reds back to the European status a club of their size and prestige truly deserve (providing Liverpool’s season doesn’t enter into an unforeseeable capitulation in its last eight Premier League fixtures) but furthermore completely rewritten the balance of power at the Premier League’s summit.
Fuelled by the combined 47 goals of Sturridge and Suarez, the Reds are currently second in the league, just three points behind table-toppers Chelsea with a game in hand – anything could happen between now and May-time. And although I remain pessimistic that the Anfield side will be able to mimic their role in the title race next season, their continuous momentum under Brendan Rodgers suggests that the days of eighth-place finishes and Europa League football are now well behind Liverpool. There are certainly worse places to be than the red half of Merseyside right now – the red half of Manchester for example – and considering Liverpool’s enormous improvement this season, silverware in an auxiliary form could not be far off.
But this is not a case of the Fernando Torres ilk, a case of a talented player leaving Liverpool for another club with a greater chance of silverware success after some unprecedented money being put on the table. This is a case of arguably the best player in the world right now – certainly the best player outside of Ballon D’or monopolisers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – joining a club, be it Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, that despite Liverpool’s incredible history domestically and in Europe, are no longer directly comparable to in terms of prestige and historical significance.
These are clubs that reach the semi-finals of the Champions League without fail almost every season – the kind of matches of immense magnitude and honour that a player of Suarez’s quality should be involved in. These are clubs whose fortunes, unlike Liverpool’s, do not depend upon a core of quality players and a talented manager alone. These are clubs that define players in the context of historical hindsight. These are clubs where trophies and silverware are a way of life, not a rare, almost miraculous occurrence.
And it’s not as if Suarez still owes something to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers or the fans. Agreed, the Anfield side provided the Uruguayan the platform to impress that others wouldn’t when they invested £20million in the former Ajax star back in 2011. Subsequently, you can certainly argue that the club deserves the 27 year-old’s loyalty after unwaveringly standing by him amid every controversial episode – who can forget Kenny Dalglish’s ill-fated ‘Support Suarez’ t-shirt campaign.
But Suarez had the opportunity to depart from Merseyside last summer; he could have taken his, albeit, rather classless, demands to leave during the Confederations Cup a step further; he could have insisted upon an exit when Arsenal made their £40million plus a quid bid, which it turns out, did activate the South American’s release clause; like Gareth Bale, he could have declared he’d never play for Tottenham again; like Gareth Bale, he could have refused to turn up to training.
Yet the star striker stayed put for another year, and in return has provided Liverpool fans with their most memorable Premier League campaign since 2009. In terms of individual contribution, Suarez’s efforts this term parallel that of Steven Gerrard’s in the Reds’ famous 2005 Champions League final, even if, unlike that unforgettable night in Istanbul, the Reds’ current season doesn’t end with silverware.
But of greater significance than the allure of trophies is the fact Suarez is now 27 years of age. By my reckoning, in the modern transfer climate, that gives the Uruguayan a shelf-life of two more transfer windows before his value to the European powerhouses begins to quickly corrode.
Liverpool fans will view that critique as a blessing – should Suarez’ many suitors be put off by his lack of longevity, that only cements the Uruguayan’s opportunity to immortalise himself as a Kop legend, on par with the likes of Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Kevin Keegan and Dalglish. Certainly an enormous honour and achievement even if it can’t be represented in material reward.
But in the process, that would hold back a few-in-a-generation, world-class talent from realising the historical acclaim he truly deserves. Suarez will already go down in Merseyside folk law as one of the greatest strikers Anfield has ever seen. Now he owes it to himself to become one of the greatest strikers the world has ever seen – before it’s too late.