By David Lynch
That the minutiae of the investigation into Luis Suarez’s exchange with Patrice Evra has plagued English football within recent weeks is undeniable. Yet, whatever the rights and wrongs of an issue which has both divided English football and been argued more finely than perhaps any other in the sport, the time for conjecture is well and truly over.
Although Liverpool didn’t exactly go quietly, they have now at least accepted the eight-game ban handed down by the FA to help draw a line under an increasingly unsavoury matter. What they now face is the reality of losing a striker, a creative outlet and their best player so far this season for a lengthy period – a period which could define their season.
Whilst the desire to avoid the possibility of further sanctions would have no doubt compelled the Anfield hierarchy to accept Suarez’s ban, there is much to be deduced from the timing of Liverpool’s rejection of their right to appeal its length.
There were 10 days remaining for the Reds to launch an appeal, 10 days in which they could have delayed both the proceedings and the start of the sanction. Although it at first appeared that the day Liverpool faced a side top of the league away from home was not an ideal time to lose their number one striker, it actually said much about where their priorities this season lie.
To suggest that a man as fiercely competitive as Kenny Dalglish would ever go into a game accepting a loss would be incredibly foolish, but it’s hard to ignore the suggestion that, even if Suarez had been available, the trip to City was a game his side could afford to lose.
Missing out | Liverpool will have to do without their talisman for seven more games
The eventual 3-0 loss saw Liverpool still just three points from fourth – quite simply their sole target this season - and now having played Arsenal, Tottenham, City and Chelsea away in the league. With three of those four (crucially the three they are competing with for a Champions League berth) yet to visit Anfield, the City fixture in reality could have been much more vital than it transpired to be.
There is also something telling about the remaining fixtures the Uruguayan must see out. They take in three more league games, two League Cup ties and, with the presumption of progression against League One’s Oldham Athletic at home on Friday, two FA Cup ties. The possibility of four cup ties and three league games against sides which Liverpool should hope to beat even without Suarez - Wolves, Stoke and Bolton – could well have influenced Dalglish to take the ban now, rather than risk facing its effects during the season run-in.
Such timing thus supports the belief that the Merseysiders are placing their target of Champions League qualification above all else. The cups are merely a bonus whereas the money and, perhaps more importantly, attraction to top players that European football provides is premier.
|MISSING FROM ACTION
The games Suarez will miss
||Manchester City (A)|
||Stoke City (H)
|Jan 25||Manchester City (H)|
|*||Will only return by this date if Liverpool beat or draw with Oldham|
This is further backed by the run of fixtures which then come after the Reds’ No.7’s return. A clash with fellow European hopefuls Tottenham at Anfield awaits the Uruguayan and is followed, incredibly, by a visit to Old Trafford. This is a fixture with plenty of niggle already, of course, but this could well be heightened as Suarez plays for only the second occasion after his return for an offence committed against Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
It will in fact mirror a previous clash between the sides in 1995 when Eric Cantona, who served an eight-month ban for kicking a Crystal Palace supporter, returned against the Red Devils’ fiercest rivals. With a derby against David Moyes’ Everton the next league game for Dalglish’s men, this is a run of matches that will decide much about Liverpool’s league credentials and one that they would be keen to have their man back for.
That said, quite how Suarez’s absence is handled now will go a long way to determing if the Reds can stay in touch with those they hope to surpass upon his return. The worrying form of two of their attackers, namely Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll, was highlighted once again and must be immediately cured or Liverpool risk falling to a position that even Suarez’s brilliance could not repair.
Downing has yet to provide an assist or a goal since joining the club in the summer and, though the post has cruelly denied him on several occasions, he betrayed his lack of confidence openly in his last outing.
Presented with the chance to give his side the lead early on against City, the 27-year-old merely toed tamely at the goalkeeper after being played into the box one-on-one. Meanwhile, £35 million forward Carroll has also been similarly affected and must shake off the doubts brought by his price tag to improve on a run which has seen him score just five times in 25 appearances.
If these players cannot build upon their poor starts then the current leadership at Anfield have proven before that they are not afraid to spend money in the January transfer window. Perhaps a player who has yet to even don a red shirt could be the answer to the questions posed by Suarez’s absence.
Whatever their course of action, it is crucial that the men from Anfield manage this period well or they face seeing their hopes for the season ended in a matter of eight games.
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