x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Luis Suarez swansong hits a flat note for Liverpool in Asia

In what could have been his last game for Liverpool, the controversial Uruguayan failed to deliver, while others stole the spotlight, writes Richard Jolly.

Liverpool’s Luis Suarez cut a surly figure at the trophy celebration yesterday.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez cut a surly figure at the trophy celebration yesterday.

Liverpool have bade farewell to Asia, but other goodbyes are more protracted.

If he has his way, Luis Suarez will leave Anfield this summer.

In the meantime, he has contrived to dominate Liverpool's pre-season tour, a substitute who has been much more than a subplot.

After playing 18 minutes in the 2-0 victory over Melbourne Victory, the Uruguayan featured for 28 in a 3-0 thrashing of Thailand.

When he met Steven Gerrard's free kick with a glancing header that hit the bar, he was inches away from a first Liverpool goal since April's 2-2 draw with Chelsea, which is remembered rather more for Suarez's bite of Branislav Ivanovic than his late equaliser.

So the screaming hordes in Bangkok did not quite get the distinction of seeing Suarez's last strike for Liverpool.

Perhaps Brendan Rodgers was giving him a semblance of match fitness for his next employer; perhaps he will be seen again in competitive action again for Liverpool.

Whichever, their position remains similar on differing issues.

On Saturday, the owner John W Henry had denied he was selling the club. Throughout, their stance has been that the Uruguayan, too, is not for sale.

One of his suitors, Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, said: "We are not close to signing Suarez."

In Thailand, Suarez being Suarez, he overshadowed the other forwards, at least in the eyes of a crowd with a rare sight of a superstar.

Yet, in Rodgers's preparations, the principal question surrounds the attack.

Whether or not Suarez will go, the reality is he is suspended for the start of the campaign, with six games remaining on the 10-match ban he was given for attacking Ivanovic.

The logical alternative, Daniel Sturridge, has missed the pre-season tour with an ankle injury.

Should that prevent the Englishman from facing Stoke on August 17, it seems a straight duel between Fabio Borini and Iago Aspas to lead the line.

If so, it should be a simple decision for Rodgers.

While both started in Bangkok, it was Aspas, even as an ersatz right winger, who got his name on the score sheet, finishing calmly after a defence-splitting pass from Philippe Coutinho.

It was a third goal in friendlies for the £7.7 million (Dh43.5m) signing from Celta Vigo, whereas Borini's fortunes have been epitomised by a glaring miss in the 4-0 win over Preston North End.

An attempt to win a penalty in Thailand showed a similar lack of conviction from the out-of-form Italian.

Both started as Rodgers, who had been playing 4-2-3-1, opted for 4-3-3, albeit without actual wingers.

Coutinho and Aspas wandered infield, enabling both to score and the Spaniard to set up Gerrard for Liverpool's third, chipped in delicately.

The pivotal decision when Rodgers ponders the two systems is whether he wants to bolster the centre of midfield or start with Coutinho in the No 10 position.

The undisputed star of Liverpool's pre-season programme has been Coutinho, 21, who waltzed through the home defence for a memorable solo goal to open the scoring.

The Thailand team are coached by Zico - though not the Zico - and, whatever moniker the manager (Kiatisuk Senamuang) adopted, the closer comparison with the 1980s great came from the Brazilian in Liverpool's ranks.

Gerrard, who clipped the bar late on, also provided flair while there were bright cameos from Jordon Ibe and Jordan Henderson.

Their defensive colleagues were less prominent.

If the assumption upon Kolo Toure's arrival was that he would understudy a bigger buy now, like Jamie Carragher before him, an experienced back-up looks likely to start.

Rodgers was interested in the Greece international Kyriakos Papadopoulos but the trail for a new centre-back has gone cold.

Martin Skrtel still seems out of favour and Toure has been given plenty of playing time alongside Daniel Agger.

An understanding is being established and it helps Toure's cause, too, that Liverpool are yet to concede in pre-season, even if the limited standard of the opposition is one explanation.

Yet the way this summer's striking signing, Aspas, looks to have moved ahead of last season's, Borini, in the queue for places, means the tour should have crystallised Rodgers's thinking.

One way or another, he is facing life without Suarez.

Initially, at least, Aspas looks the man with big boots to fill.


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