LONDON – Six months ago, many believed, even hoped, that Luis Suárez had played his last game for Liverpool.
The Uruguayan’s CV already included a racist charge for abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United; to that he added cannibalism after biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during a game at Anfield last April.
During the summer Suárez did all he could to engineer a move to Real Madrid, and while Tottenham sold its prize asset, Gareth Bale, to the Spanish club for £80 million, Liverpool, which said its striker would not leave, was good to its word.
Suárez’s apparent reluctant season with Liverpool had a belated start as he served the remaining six games — five in the league and one League Cup tie — of his ban for sinking his teeth into Ivanovic.
As the Premier League reaches the halfway mark, Suárez is on target to beat Alan Shearer’s record of 34 goals set in 1994-95, when teams played 42 games a season.
After 12 games of Shearer’s record-breaking season with Blackburn Rovers, the former England international had scored seven goals. Suárez’s total after his first dozen matches was 19, six ahead of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero.
The Liverpool striker can play a maximum of 33 league games this season, and logic dictates Suárez will miss a game or two through injury or suspension, though he has been cautioned only twice so far as opposed to 11 times last season.
Yet scoring 16 goals in, let’s say 30 matches, is well within the capabilities of Suárez who was rightly vilified by the media, but is now making headlines for all the right reasons and has extended his contract with Liverpool.
He is the early favorite to be named the Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association, a remarkable and unexpected turnaround in fortunes for Suárez, whose talent has too often been overshadowed by his temperament.
Suárez is helped by playing in a Liverpool side that has shown significant improvement this season under Brendan Rodgers’ inspired management and coaching.
Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson form as good a midfield as there is in the Premier League, with Suárez and Daniel Sturridge scoring a combined 30 goals so far.
Liverpool lost 2-1 at Manchester City on Boxing Day, but City acknowledged the Reds were the best team to visit Etihad Stadium this season, and the visitors were let down by some awful decisions by the match officials.
Rodgers had some stern words to say about Lee Mason, though his inference behind the referee being from Bolton, which is in Greater Manchester, did him no credit. Mason may have had a bad game, but there were no dark shadows over his decision-making.
On a more positive note, the Liverpool manager said: “The over-riding feeling was pride after such a wonderful performance. To show the bravery and courage we did is a compliment to the team.”
Three points separate leaders Arsenal and fourth-place Liverpool which, unlike their rivals, have no European distractions as this unpredictable season gathers pace.
Manchester City and Chelsea have the strongest squads, City and Arsenal have played the best football with Jose Mourinho again showing he has not lost the art of his side winning ugly.
The surprise is the rise of Newcastle, which has won seven and drawn one of its last nine games.
Midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa, defender Mathieu Debuchy and forward Yoan Gouffran have been particularly impressive among Newcastle’s French connection.
Arsenal tried to buy Cabaye during the summer, but was put off by the £20 million asking price. On Sunday, Arsene Wenger will see first-hand what might have been when the Gunners visit St. James’ Park in a game that features the two longest-serving managers in the Premier League.
Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal for 17 years, while Alan Pardew’s three years at Newcastle makes him second in a table where the uncertainty of English football is underlined by David Moyes, appointed manager of Manchester United on July 1 this year, being the 11th-longest-server.
Newcastle could go fifth if it continues its winning run, though Pardew knows the size of the task ahead of his team. He said: “Arsenal are top of the league. That is deserved, they have been the best team in this first half of the season, but we are in great shape, our place will be rocking and rolling and Arsenal know it won’t be easy to turn us over.”
* * *
HISTORY CAN BE a powerful opponent and as Sunderland was bottom of the Premier League at Christmas, it has only a five percent chance of avoiding relegation.
Yet the Black Cats’ Boxing Day accumulator-busting 1-0 win at Everton left them only one point adrift at the bottom of the table with 13 points from 18 games. It is tight at both ends of the Premier League with five points covering the bottom eight clubs.
To remain in the Premier League, Sunderland will probably need 25 points from its remaining 20 matches. In other words, Sunderland needs to improve by around 300 percent to equal West Bromwich Albion’s remarkable comeback and maintain its place at English football’s top table.
Albion are the only team in Premier League history to have been bottom at Christmas and survive. In 2004-05, the Baggies also had 10 points, the same as Sunderland this season, yet went on to win 24 points from their remaining 19 games to stay up.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet said: “Given our away record the victory at Everton was incredible. To keep a clean sheet was very satisfying. Everything looked bad and dark at Christmas, but this gives us hope.”
The ridiculous scheduling English football likes to call “a traditional Christmas program” means that Sunderland and 11 other Premier League sides who played on Boxing Day must also play again Saturday.
No other major league or international finals would inflict two games with only 48 hours in between on teams. It is unreasonable to expect players to perform at their peak in such quick succession and this gives a huge advantage to the bigger clubs, who can afford larger squads.
Manchester City will probably make six or seven changes from the team that defeated Liverpool on Boxing Day when it tries to make it 10 wins in 10 home games against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Palace manager Tony Pulis does not have that luxury, and while tiredness can be a convenient excuse, it is legitimate under such circumstances.
FIFA stipulates 72 hours between games, but in England two days, with one day spent travelling, is deemed sufficient.
Expect the words “tired legs” to feature heavily in Saturday’s after-match press conferences.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.