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Apr 22, 2013

Reds left in a no-win situation

At least one footballer has emerged from a sorry saga with his reputation enhanced. Branislav Ivanovic seems a forgiving sort, if Luis Suarez is to be believed. Chelsea's Serbian defender ignored the bitemarks on his arm and accepted the apology offered by Anfield's answer to Hannibal Lector. He also apparently told the police that he did not wish to press charges against his attacker.

If nothing else, the speed with which Suarez said sorry suggested Liverpool are getting better at damage limitation. They appear to have learnt lessons from the damaging, drawn-out affair last season when Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra.

And yet, in the immediate aftermath of an unprovoked, senseless assault, Suarez scarcely looked contrite. When Brendan Rodgers and Ian Ayre studied the video evidence, as they did on Sunday evening, they would have seen Liverpool's top scorer giving a thumbs-up sign to referee Kevin Friend, ignoring Ivanovic – who was trying to inform the official of the unlikely, unacceptable events – and carrying on impervious, as though nothing had happened. If he felt pangs of guilt, they were cleverly camouflaged. More likely, Suarez simply thought he had got away with it.

Perhaps, too, he has been encouraged to think he can. While Rodgers rebuked Suarez – though not at the time – for his admission that he dived in an attempt to win a penalty against Stoke, Kenny Dalglish effectively gave his star striker carte blanche to act as he wanted. His interpretation of 'the Liverpool Way', meaning outsiders could not comment on, let alone criticise, anyone at Anfield, was invoked whenever Suarez was the accused. Liverpool's best player has also brought out the worst in the extremists among the fanbase and a reappraisal of their idol is required. He is not whiter than white. None of us are.

But the broader issue, above and beyond the question of what prompts a human being to bite another, is what Liverpool do now. Suarez has received paeans of praise from Rodgers for the unyielding determination he brings to every training session, let alone every match. Liverpool's has been an undistinguished season but without his goals, particularly early in the season, it would have been far worse and Rodgers' could have proved a brief and ignominious reign. Perhaps the Northern Irishman felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the Uruguayan. He does not any longer.

He cannot control the uncontrollable and Suarez appears lawless. While there is a precedent of Eric Cantona kung-fu kicking a spectator and returning to be crowned Footballer of the Year and earn the Manchester United captaincy, that would require Suarez to effect a swift transition and become a reformed character. It would be like Mike Tyson, his new follower on Twitter, suddenly joining the Peace Corps.

So at the very least, and despite their public statement to the contrary, Liverpool must contemplate a future without Suarez. It is complicated because talent is not democratic and the 26-year-old has more of it than many of his team-mates combined. Steven Gerrard, rarely one to get carried away, has described him as the best player he has played with and, after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the third-finest footballer on the planet.

Even if Suarez's actions are indefensible, he is also irreplaceable. Despite their storied past, the reality is that Liverpool have not played a Champions League game since December 2009. They are unlikely to be in Europe next season, and a title tilt still seems seasons away. No matter how much money they banked for him, they would struggle to attract a replacement of a similar calibre.

Those who belong among the world's top ten strikers, such as Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are not beating down the door of Liverpool's Melwood training ground, begging to be allowed in. Playing alongside Stewart Downing is not enough of a carrot to lure them to Merseyside.

Factor in Rodgers' mixed record in the transfer market and it gets still tougher. If it appeared cowardly when, after the game and when everyone else knew what had happened, he insisted he had not seen the pictures, it was also understandable. This could be the defining decision of his time at Anfield.

Defending Suarez and defending against him are equally awkward tasks. But for the bite, his achievement in reaching the 30-goal landmark for the season would have been celebrated. The last Liverpool player to get there was Fernando Torres. Before him, it was Robbie Fowler, then Ian Rush and Dalglish. In short, he is in the company of legends.

Most of their goals came for better teams, too, which is why Suarez may still call the shots in his relationship with Liverpool. Yet when an offer arrives, as it surely will, Rodgers, Ayre and owners Fenway Sports Group will be placed in an unenviable position. It is certain the team will be damaged if he goes. It is probable the club's reputation will be damaged again at some point if he stays. It is a no-win situation.

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