As an uncharacteristically effusive Lionel Messi picked up a fourth Golden Boot in a dolled up Barcelona beer factory on Friday, the man handing him the prize offered a sobering lesson in how quickly a forward’s fortunes can change.
Just a year ago Luis Suarez was in Messi’s position, picking up the accolade for Europe’s deadliest striker on the back of a 59-goal season, and becoming the only man to break Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hegemony of the award since compatriot Diego Forlan back in 2009.
His handover of the prize to Messi was as much of an assist as Suarez has provided to his close friend and strike partner all season. The latter’s lack of fitness and form has left the Argentine almost single-handedly carrying the offensive burden for a much more solid but unspectacular Barcelona under new coach Ernesto Valverde.
Messi admitted as much himself when quizzed on how Neymar’s departure has affected a Barca side that has largely protected itself with an extra man in midfield to compensate for the lack of beauty brought by the Brazilian.
“The departure of Ney has meant a change in the way we play. We lost a huge amount of attacking potential, but that has benefited us in a defensive sense. Now we are more solid in midfield, we have more structure and that has made us stronger defensively,” Messi told Marca.
Neymar’s exodus has been beneficial to certain members of the Barca squad. Jordi Alba admitted his return to form has been aided by the space freed up on the left, as he showed in grabbing Barca’s equaliser at Valencia on Sunday, inevitably aided by a brilliant Messi assist.
However, it is Suarez who has suffered more than anyone else. Whereas before defences were stretched the width of the field from Messi on the right, to Neymar on the left, trying to somehow plug the gaps against the all-conquering ‘MSN’, now Suarez is their only fixed target. As Messi drops deep into midfield assuming the role of playmaker, Suarez has also been forced out of natural habit in the area to look for space.
“When there was a player of the class of Ney it was different,” Suarez admitted to Sportearlier this month. “The coach doesn’t send me out to the left, I do it out of habit if I see no one is there.”
Those movements will be familiar to Liverpool fans who watched Suarez drift wide and burrow his way past defenders with a mixture of brute strength and brilliant skill on a regular basis. At 30, the man who “could nutmeg a mermaid” according to the Kop, would now struggle to get through the Mersey tunnels.
His movement has been harmed by a knee cap injury picked up at the height of Barca’s summer crisis as Real Madrid rolled over their rivals 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup in August.
Suarez should have been out for a minimum of four weeks with surgery an option to repair the damage. Instead, he was back in action two weeks later across the Atlantic Ocean, putting his body on the line for his country as Uruguay faced Messi’s Argentina in Montevideo.
Clearly hobbled, Suarez eventually limped off after 83 minutes seemingly with a recurrence of the injury. Yet, just five days later, he played the full 90 in a win at Paraguay that put Uruguay well on the road to Russia.
“After the injury, I pushed the knee a lot and in the long term that can damage you. I put a lot of pressure on my body, was fit just in time for the national team and, until now, there hasn’t been a break,” added Suarez before sitting out the November international break.
Since returning, he has played 90 minutes in every Barca game bar a 6-1 thrashing of Eibar and a Copa del Rey tie at Murcia for which he was suspended.
There was some immediate reward for resting as Suarez ended a five-game goal drought with a scrappy double at Leganes last weekend. Yet, whilst his speed of thought may remain, quite simply Suarez’s body can’t move as quickly as his brain.
His inability to stay onside at Valencia painted the picture of a player constantly seeking the marginal advantage he knows his legs won’t give him.
Suarez’s backchat does remain as sharp as ever. “A s**t dwarf” was his retaliation to the assistant referee who flagged him offside six times, yet somehow failed to see Messi’s first-half effort had crossed the line.
Signed in the midst of the scandal caused by his bite on Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup, Suarez has been a resounding success for Barcelona. On 126 goals from 164 games, one more goal will take him into the top 10 of the club’s all-time top scorers.
However, since hitting his first century in record time, the steady stream has dried up. The Catalans’ concern has to be that five in 17 this season is not merely a blip, but the new norm.
“I am the first one that wants to score goals and help the help. I would be lying if I said I was happy with my performance, I know I can give more,” Suarez insisted during his recent drought.