Suarez to face old friend Messi with title in the balance

Luis Suarez departed Barcelona at the end of last season as the club's third-highest scorer with 198 goals, behind Cesar Rodriguez (232) and good friend Lionel Messi (670).

Atleti striker Luis Suarez (R) had missed this season's first meeting between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in November due to the coronavirus (File Photo).

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi often spent time hanging out together at their neighbouring homes on the Mediterranean coast when taking a break from scoring goals for Barcelona.

It will be less relaxing on Saturday when Suarez returns to Camp Nou with Atletico Madrid, aiming to inflict a major blow on his former team's title hopes in the Spanish league.

Facing mounting debts and desperate to reduce its payroll, Barcelona sold the 34-year-old Suarez to Atletico on the cheap at the start of the season.

The deal, which could reach six million euros, proved to be a steal for Atletico. While not as mobile as he once was, Suarez’s world-class finishing touch gave Atletico coach Diego Simeone the scorer he had failed to find since Antoine Griezmann swapped clubs for Barcelona.

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Suarez missed the first meeting of the teams in November due to the coronavirus. Yannick Carrasco's goal — and its smothering defense — gave Atletico a 1-0 win that helped it to build an early lead up top in the 2020-21 La Liga standings.

Atletico plays third-placed Barcelona a day before second-placed Real Madrid hosts fourth-placed Sevilla during a weekend that promises to shake up the closest title fight in years. Atletico is two points ahead of both Madrid and Barcelona, while Sevilla is a further four points behind.

Suarez departed Barcelona as its third-highest scorer with 198 goals, behind Cesar Rodriguez (232) and Messi (670). He helped Barcelona win 13 titles after arriving in 2014 from Liverpool, including four Spanish league trophies and the Champions League in 2015.

Messi complained publicly after Barcelona got rid of Suarez, who had wanted to stay. Barcelona took a conciliatory approach on Friday towards Suarez, who scored 21 goals for Barcelona in the 2019-20 season.

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“We were teammates. Today we are rivals. But we will always be friends, Luis Suarez,” Barcelona tweeted along with a photo of Suarez embracing Messi and other former teammates.

Since his move to Spain's capital, the Uruguay striker has become Atletico’s top weapon. He leads the team with 19 goals in the league. “He has met all the expectations we placed on him,” Simeone had said.

Simeone will have to choose from Carrasco, Marcos Llorente, Angel Correa and Joao Felix to accompany Suarez in attack, giving Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman lots to worry about.

“It will be strange for (Suarez), but also for my players. But we are football professionals and each one of them will give it their all,” said Koeman, who is suspended for the match. “We will have to focus on him, as well as the rest of the team that plays behind him. We must think about how we must pressure them to disrupt their attack.”

Atletico will also have a lethal opposition player on its mind as Messi looks to add to his league-leading 28 goals this season.

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