By Richard Jolly
Adios, Luis. The Premier League is losing its most compelling character. Over the past three-and-a-half years, no one has caused more controversy or scored more spectacular goals than Luis Suarez. Over the next three-and-a-half, it is hard to imagine anyone else will do either, let alone both. For better or worse, there is no-one quite like Suarez.
It is why Barcelona’s gain is Liverpool’s loss. The Premier League’s, too. Its runners-up will be compensated with around £70 million. The division will have to find someone else to occupy the attention. Suarez monopolised it.
You can look at the numbers to try and measure his impact. He scored 31 league goals last season, a record in a 38-game division, without requiring a single penalty and after missing the first five matches because, all too typically, of a lengthy suspension. Over his career, he made fewer appearances for Liverpool than Fernando Torres, an out-and-out predator, and scored more goals.
Yet Suarez cannot be judged by statistics alone. His contribution was greater than that. His hunger to be involved everywhere and anywhere made him much more than a mere striker. Top scorer, talisman, tarnished talent: Suarez has been all of those and plenty else besides.
He has been uncontrollable: not by opposing defences, nor by those who sided with him. Suarez’s gifts proved too seductive. The lemming-like loyalists have blinded themselves to his misdemeanours, lashing out at others after he racially abused Patrice Evra and bit Branislav Ivanovic.
Too many bought into the myth of the reformed character. Brendan Rodgers, the eager educator, sometimes confuses footballing magnificence with moral rectitude in his eulogies to his charges and his May speech, when the Uruguayan was named Footballer of the Year, seems misguided now Suarez has bitten a third player and agitated for a move again.
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Yet what is undeniable is that Suarez has raised Liverpool’s level. Rodgers’ intelligent, ambitious management, Steven Gerrard’s inspirational captaincy and enduring excellence, Daniel Sturridge’s potent finishing and Raheem Sterling’s prodigious ability have helped lift Liverpool out of mediocrity and back into the Champions League. It wouldn’t have been possible without Suarez, the driving force whose mesmeric dribbling has allowed him to win games single-handed.
There are times when team-mates and rivals appeared equally irrelevant. Suarez seemed to stage a one-man goal-of-the-season competition last year. Two came in the space of the same game, the rasping, remarkable 40-yarder and juggling masterpiece against his favourite victims, Norwich. The astonishing header from the edge of the penalty area against West Brom, which was almost equally impressive, was overshadowed and overlooked. There were simply too many.
Goals came in quantity and of quality as Liverpool recorded a century last season. Now it falls to Sturridge to lead the line and to Rodgers to spend a windfall. He has Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Emre Can signed up and Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren and Divock Origi in the works. Yet none is the new Suarez. Who could be? The blend of magic and madness, of skill and slyness, of brilliance and badness; it all formed part of a unique mix of an extraordinary player who has done some abhorrent deeds.
The brevity of his Anfield career may mean he ranks below the Liverpool legends who kept on scoring for seasons, such as Ian Rush and Roger Hunt; Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish can still contest the title of the club’s greatest player now the challenge from Uruguay has been abandoned.
But the Suarez years have created indelible memories, of virtuosity and villainy. The Premier League has never known anyone quite like him.