It takes something quite special to take the spotlight away from Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
Of course, Messi has always been – and always will be – Barcelona’s main man. Messi has always been – and always will be – Barcelona’s best player.
But this season, for the first time in a decade, Messi has not been Barcelona’s most important player. Luis Suarez has.
Suarez’s influence is stamped all over Barca’s latest title triumph in La Liga. It can be seen in black and white; in cold, hard statistics.
A haul of 40 league goals in 35 appearances makes him the first footballer not named Lionel or Cristiano to win the Pichichi Trophy since Diego Forlan for Atletico Madrid in 2009.
Only Messi – with 17 – was able to beat Suarez’s total of 16 La Liga assists, and no player in Europe’s top five leagues can better the Uruguay international’s direct involvement in 56 goals across the course of the season.
In total, Suarez has scored 59 goals in 52 appearances in all competitions going into the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla next week.
These are mind-boggling numbers; numbers that were once achieved only by Messi and Ronaldo, numbers that make it feel unthinkable that there were doubts over whether Suarez would fit in at Camp Nou – and even more unthinkable that the man himself shared those doubts.
When Messi missed almost two months of the season with a knee injury before Christmas, it was Suarez – aided and abetted by Neymar – who kept Barca top of the table with goal after goal, assist after assist.
And when Messi made his comeback in the season’s first Clasico at Santiago Bernabeu in late November, Suarez still stole the headlines with a double in Barca’s utterly convincing 4-0 win.
After Barca lost the return Clasico and two subsequent games last month to transform their title procession into a thrilling sprint to the finishing line, Suarez scored four and set up another three when the pressure was really on in their 8-0 demolition of Deportivo La Coruna.
For good measure, he scored four more in their 6-0 rout of Sporting Gijon three days later, going on to end the campaign with an incredible 14 goals in his last five league games, seeing Luis Enrique’s men over the line with a hat-trick on the final day at Granada.
In Barca’s history, only Messi has ever produced a campaign more prolific than Suarez’s total of 59 this season, which comprehensively beat the 48 scored by Brazil icon Ronaldo in 1996-97.
But it is also the unquantifiable qualities in Suarez’s game that have propelled Barca to a 24th league title, and the player himself to football’s top table – a place which, until this season, had been exclusively occupied by Messi and Ronaldo, the winners of every Ballon d’Or since 2008.
His physical and mental robustness, leadership, drive, unquenchable thirst to score and to win and win and then win some more are unrivalled.
If Suarez – who could not make his debut until late October in his first season due to his suspension for a bite on Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup – sometimes looks like he plays with a point to prove, that’s because he is playing with a point to prove.
Unlike Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar, this is a man who was not born to be a superstar and has taken the hard road to the top. From the backstreets of Salto in his native Uruguay to Camp Nou – via Nacional, Groningen, Ajax and Liverpool.
“I dreamed of playing for Barcelona, but even I didn’t believe I was good enough to be Barca’s number nine,” Suarez said earlier this season.
“You always dream of playing with the best and now I’m doing just that, with Messi, Neymar, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and so on.”
You’re not just playing with them, Luis – you’re winning titles for them.
Luis Enrique, Suarez’s boss, said last month: “He has settled extraordinarily at Barcelona – what Luis Suarez does for us, not just his goals, but his work and character, is why we decided to sign him.”
It takes something quite special to improve a team that already includes Messi, Neymar and Iniesta.
Luis Suarez, whether he realises it or not, is something quite special.
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