Suarez returns to England for clash of the season against United

Despite being clouded by the phenomenon that is Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez has proved time and again that he can be an able sidekick without losing sight of what he can contribute individually.

Luis Suarez will look to take Barcelona through in their Champions League match against Manchester United on Wednesday. (File photo)   -  AFP

Uruguan footballer and Barcelona forward Luis Suarez returns to England with everything to gain ahead of what one can expect to be an electrifying face off against Manchester United.

Barcelona blew Atletico Madrid away in their La Liga clash on Saturday, dropping the burden of containing the might of Suarez in Europe on United’s shoulders.

The image of Lionel Messi's partner-in-chief has been defined by his darker side - a relentless, ferocious and, occasionally, misguided opponent, running defenders ragged for the best part of a decade, so much so that Barca’s coach Ernesto Valverde uses the description - “un dolor de cabeza” - meaning a headache for the 32-year-old.

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Suarez's reputation as one of the game's arch-villains is entrenched, perhaps nowhere deeper than in England, where he was found guilty of racial abuse for calling United's Patrice Evra “negrito” in 2011 and, a season later, sank his teeth into the arm of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic.

Suarez was suspended for a combined 18 matches and there were two further bites, on Otman Bakkal in 2010 and Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup.

Two months before his clash with Chiellini, Suarez had been named the Premier League's PFA Players' Player of the Year and won the division's Golden Boot award after scoring 31 goals for Liverpool.

In four seasons at Anfield, he hit 82 goals in 133 games, a ratio better than both Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie at Arsenal, Alan Shearer at Newcastle and Didier Drogba at Chelsea.

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He returns to Old Trafford on Wednesday in the last 16 of the Champions League, the tournament Barcelona craves success in this season more than any other.

For Barcelona, which paid Liverpool just over 80 million euros to sign Suarez in 2014, his contribution has been clouded less by indiscipline and more by Messi, the player around whom the whole team revolves.

Suarez is Messi's provider, runner and foil but has managed to perform the role without losing sight of what he can bring to the table.

Karim Benzema delivered 11 and five league goals in his last two seasons in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo but in five years at Barca, Suarez's La Liga tally reads 27, 35, 35, 33 and 30, the last still with seven games to play.

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There have been barren spells, often in the late summer months, when fitness has been lacking, and in the Champions League, where Suarez faces United hunting only his second goal in 17 games. He has not scored away from Camp Nou in the tournament since September 2015.

“It's one of those things a coincidence,” said Valverde.

But few can dispute Suarez's part in what is now one of the most dominant eras in the history of Spanish football.

Messi's talent stands alone but his partnership with Suarez, a close personal friend, is extraordinary too. Together they have 66 goals in all competitions this season, 43 for Messi and 23 for Suarez, while in the league they have 53, more than every team in the division, except Real Madrid.

When Messi broke his arm in October and Barca were forced to manage without the Argentinian, Suarez stepped up, scoring six times in five games.

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The side is now within touching distance of its eighth La Liga title in 11 years, secured, surely, by its 2-0 win over Atletico last weekend, in which Suarez scored the opener in the 85th minute.

It was a curling, long-range shot into the corner, the first that goalkeeper Jan Oblak had conceded from outside the box all season, after 30 previous attempts. “We could only have scored with a goal like that one by Suarez,” said Valverde.

With another league title, and perhaps domestic double, on its way, Barcelona can put the Champions League at the front and centre of its run-in. Suarez will be at the heart of it.