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Apr 21, 2013

Suarez takes centre stage

It is just as well Liverpool have appointed a new director of communications. Now, more than ever, they need one. Yet Susan Black's is a thankless task. How do you justify the unjustifiable? How do you defend the indefensible? How does she, or anyone else, put out the fires that Luis Suarez keeps lighting?

Chances are they can't. Because while another match at Anfield ended in familiar fashion, with the name of the Uruguayan reverberating around the distinguished old ground, his contribution won't be remembered for his 97th-minute equaliser, late, decisive and potentially costly to Chelsea as it could be.

In a tale of two Anfield icons, this was an afternoon that, remarkable as Rafa Benitez's return was in many ways, won't be remembered for the Spaniard's comeback. Instead, the abiding image came when Suarez bit Branislav Ivanovic. This was the wrong sort of hunger for the game. This was shocking.

Or was for those who witnessed it or the many replays, anyhow. Brendan Rodgers kept insisting he had not seen either the incident or the tape, pledging: "I will make an honest appraisal and comment afterwards." As he had the time to view the television pictures, it seemed to be delaying a decision about Liverpool's finest footballer. He cannot wait for long, however.

Yet Suarez's behaviour was all the more damning as he is a footballer with a pronounced self-destructive streak and a habit of perpetrating the same crime twice. A man with a track record of handling the ball gifted Chelsea a penalty by raising his right arm in his own box. That was before he mistook Ivanovic's arm for his dinner.

Referee Kevin Friend took no action after the biting incident; the FA, with the benefit of video evidence, are less likely to be as lenient. For Suarez, this may be déjà vu all over again. His Ajax career ended in disgrace when he was given a seven-match ban for biting PSV Eindhoven midfielder Otman Bakkal in 2010. While his next suspension could be even longer, his time at Anfield has already encompassed an eight-game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra. Liverpool backed him then, in a manner that undermined Kenny Dalglish's reputation. Now his replacement is threatened by a repeat.

While Liverpool had been adamant he will stay and Suarez has insisted he is happy on Merseyside, a club with an illustrious history and a treasured reputation for decency have a decision to make. Quite simply, Suarez's actions are beyond the pale. Again.

"This is a club with incredible values and ethics," added Rodgers, hinting, rightly, that he may have to sell his superstar. "It's not for me to make any rash comments or any predictions now, but like I said, this is a football club where historically players treat people with respect. There is certainly no one bigger than this football club, as a player or a manager.

"I will always defend people if I think they are right, and if I think they are wrong, I will tell them as I have already done this season with Luis. It's disappointing that we are not talking about the football."

So to do that, as ever, Suarez exerted a magnetism. After Oscar headed Chelsea into the lead, Suarez played a part in three goals, creating Daniel Sturridge's leveler with a looping cross that the substitute prodded in. Then he allowed Chelsea to reclaim the advantage by turning goalkeeper when Juan Mata curled a corner in. Eden Hazard converted the resulting penalty. But when Chelsea seemed set for an invaluable win, Sturridge delivered a cross, and Suarez emerged unmarked and headed in.

"He didn't have his best game for us," Rodgers said. Under other circumstances, the focus would have been on Suarez becoming the 11th Liverpool player, and the first since Fernando Torres, to get 30 goals in a season for them.

But then, these were not other circumstances. At the very least, he elbowed Benitez from a spotlight he had only occupied reluctantly. At a stroke, the Spaniard's return to Liverpool became, as he had hoped, the subplot. On his first visit to Anfield since his departure in 2010, his entrance was greeted with applause. Benitez, whose modest mannerisms stand in stark contrast to his divisive persona, responded with a shy wave. But spotting a steward and a photographer he knew, he lingered to shake hands before retreating to his dugout. Benitez has never been the most demonstrative of men, but he appreciates the affection for him. "It was an emotional return," he said.

Needless to say, the grander gestures came from others. In the Kop, there was a flag with a Soviet-style star in the top left and images of Anfield's five managerial greats: Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, who brought three decades of almost uninterrupted success, and Benitez, the one elevated to a place in the pantheon for his exploits in the past 20 years. They are the Anfield icons; for Rodgers, they are the role models, but the Northern Irishman's task is complicated because one is his immediate predecessor and another was his opponent.

Barely had the game kicked off when the first of the familiar, rhythmic chants of "Rafa, Rafael, Rafa, Rafael, Rafa, Rafael Benitez" broke out in the Kop. After the second, and seeing the current incumbent stood alone at the edge of his technical area, the Liverpool supporters were diplomatic enough to recognise Rodgers.

Their Chelsea counterparts, meanwhile, ignored him and taunted Benitez. "We don't care about Rafa," was one chorus. Another chant, when Hazard was substituted, was: "You don't know what you are doing."

He was seconds away from validation. Then, as ever, Suarez changed the narrative, leading Benitez, an expert in commenting only on selected issues, to lament the amount of injury time Friend played and Rodgers, to his discredit, to complain that the official had not sent off the other Spanish defector to Chelsea, Fernando Torres, for an apparent elbow on Jamie Carragher.

At least he saw that.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Daniel Sturridge. A catalytic cameo. He almost set up a goal inside 12 seconds, nearly scored inside two minutes, when he hit the post, did strike after seven and then supplied the injury-time equaliser to ruin Rafa's reunion.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Poor in the first half, when they were off the pace, they were better in the second. Nevertheless, they have drawn the past three games and a place in Europe is looking more unlikely.

CHELSEA VERDICT: With Arsenal and Tottenham winning, they have dropped two points over the weekend. Perhaps Benitez should have brought John Terry on to deal with the late Liverpool offensive.

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