Biting betters Luis Suarez into scoring success
Luis Suarez says he's a changed man.
Whether that change is for better or worse he didn't specify, but when you spend the whole of training camp petulantly demanding a trade and are forced to sit out the first five games of the regular season because you bit an opponent, there's really only one way to go.
"The last few months were a little difficult for me," the mercurial Liverpool striker said on the team's website earlier this month.
"Now I've changed and it's OK."
A bit more than OK, actually. With 22 goals in 17 English Premier League games, Suarez is scoring at a faster rate than any player in league history.
With his next goal, which could come Tuesday against Everton, Suarez will match his previous Premier League season high, set in 33 games last season. And his two-season total of 45 goals is 12 better than his nearest league rival, Manchester United's Robin Van Persie.
The scoring outburst also ties him with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, the newly minted world player of the year, as the most prolific scorer in European league play. But Ronaldo scored his 22 goals in 20 games and he needed 62 more shots to get them.
If Suarez, who is scoring on nearly a quarter of his shots, continues his torrid pace and plays in all of Liverpool's remaining 16 league games he'll finish with 43 goals, shattering the league record of 34 set two decades ago when the season was 42 games long.
Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers believes Suarez's spectacular play is a product of his recent difficulties, which included feuds with teammates and management and a six-week suspension to start the season, part of a 10-game penalty for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic last year.
It was the third ban of at least seven games in Suarez's club career. And for the Uruguayan international, who turned 27 on Friday, the incident proved to him that it was time to grow up.
"There was a lot of self-reflection, and he probably thought he couldn't have gone any lower," Rodgers told reporters.
"I know he was in a real bad place at the time and sometimes in life it takes you to get to that point and have to assess it and you go one of two ways."
Suarez started the turnaround with his national team, outscoring even Lionel Messi in South American qualifying to help Uruguay advance to this summer's World Cup. And with nine goals in 11 games in 2013, he became Uruguay's all-time leading scorer with 39 international goals in only 76 appearances.
It took a little longer for Suarez to settle in with Liverpool. But since launching his summer temper tantrum in an effort to force a trade, an outburst that led Rodgers to isolate Suarez from his teammates as punishment, the coach said the striker has "been exemplary in his behaviour".
"You can see the maturity, and his level of performance speaks for itself," Rodgers said.
"He's absolutely in the right place."
Many of Liverpool's players agree, saying Suarez has become a better teammate, one capable of leading the team to its first title in the Premier League era and its first Champions League appearance since 2009.
"We've got chemistry on the field," Daniel Sturridge, Suarez's front-line sidekick, said in a phone interview.
"We get along on and off the field. And it's a beautiful thing to have a partnership with a world-class striker."
Sturridge is having a world-class season himself. His 11 goals rank third in the Premier League even though he has been limited to 14 games because of injury, a wave of bad luck that still plagues Liverpool, which is down six players and didn't even have enough healthy bodies for a full scrimmage last week.
Suarez has single-handedly taken up the slack. Last month he scored 10 times to lead Liverpool to four consecutive victories, three of them with Sturridge and Steven Gerrard on the sidelines. That helped boost the team to fourth place in the standings, eight points behind first-place Arsenal.
And given how far Suarez has come on his personal journey over the last year, catching Arsenal by May doesn't appear so daunting.
"In the last two or three years we have not played very well and not demonstrated our level. Now we are back to that," Suarez said.
"It's a good moment for me. It's also a good moment for the club.
"If we can continue at this level, we can do everything."