For most of the Barcelona team, Tuesday’s Champions League opener against Celtic only represents a chance to wipe Saturday’s shock defeat to Alaves from memory. For Luis Suarez, however, it means coming up against the manager who had the biggest impact on his career.
Brendan Rodgers has only been in charge at Celtic for two months, but he has already galvanized a club that had begun to sleepwalk into irrelevance. Following consecutive failures in the Champions League playoffs under predecessor Ronny Deila, Celtic are back in Europe’s elite competition and flew into Barcelona on Monday in a glowing mood after thumping Rangers 5-1 in the first league Old Firm derby in four years.
Already, people are comparing Rodgers’ impact to the effect Martin O’Neill had when he dramatically turned Celtic’s fortunes around upon taking charge in 2000. Suarez, for his part, will not be surprised in the slightest to hear this.
Despite being arguably the best centre-forward in the world, Suarez has not exactly played under the ‘creme de la creme’ of coaches. He had a total of six managers in his three and a half years with Ajax and only really excelled under Martin Jol, who resigned barely a month before Suarez signed for Liverpool to play under Kenny Dalglish.
Dalglish had been out of management for 11 years before he retook control of Liverpool, and while Suarez remains eternally grateful to the manager for standing by him during the racism row with Patrice Evra, he admits that Rodgers is the manager who truly got the best out of him.
Rodgers is often mocked for his grandiose statements in interviews and for his inflated ego, but he worked superbly with Suarez, who was often unsettled in England. From the first moment the two met, Suarez knew he was going to have a profitable relationship with his new coach.
As the Uruguayan revealed in his autobiography “Crossing The Line,” Rodgers had spoken to him in Spanish while he was still manager of Swansea. On his first day at Liverpool, Rodgers made a point of having a private conversation with Suarez to try and prevent him from moving to Juventus. Again he spoke to Suarez in Spanish, assuring him that his new Liverpool side would play to the striker’s strengths.
Suarez recalled: “There was a moment during the first real, in-depth conversation that I had with Brendan Rodgers when I looked at him and it hit me: ‘He’s right.’ We had been talking for a little while, he was explaining the way that he wanted the team to play and everything was falling into place. Everything he said made perfect sense. I was completely convinced.”
Suarez had scored 15 Premier League goals in his previous 18 months at Liverpool before Rodgers arrived. In their first season together he plundered 23, but he was even better the following season, netting 31 times to take Liverpool to the brink of the title before their bid dramatically derailed.
Rodgers could not iron out Suarez’s occasional moments of madness, as the Uruguayan bit Branislav Ivanovic in 2013 and Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup while still a Liverpool player. But by then, Suarez had become so good that his disciplinary lapses were merely a footnote to his extraordinary abilities. They did not dissuade Barcelona from signing him that same month.
Suarez has of course excelled even more since moving to Spain, an environment that suits him better both on and off the pitch. But he has not forgotten Rodgers’ influence.
“If it wasn’t for Brendan, then I know I would not be the same player that you see at Barcelona today,” Suarez said this year.
“Such a big part of my education is down to him and his management.
“I wasn’t proven and I had to adapt to the Premier League, which Brendan knew. He knows all about English football and he educated me to become successful.”
Rodgers, however, will be bracing himself and his side for a likely Barca backlash.
Luis Enrique got his hands burned against Alaves by getting carried away with his rotations and surely will not make the same mistake on Tuesday.
He will likely revert to his first choice XI, depending on whether Marc-Andre ter Stegen recovers from his hamstring problem and takes the No. 1 spot back from Jasper Cillessen, who had a Barcelona debut to forget on Saturday.
It will be intriguing to see whether the coach keeps faith with Javier Mascherano following a performance AS aptly described as “horrible,” or if Samuel Umtiti, who played well against Real Betis but looked out of his depth at Athletic Bilbao, has already earned his place in the ‘Gala XI.’
Only Ivan Rakitic, Neymar and Sergio Busquets are likely to keep their place in the team, meaning we should see the “MSN” start their first game together up front. While Messi and Neymar may be the more glamorous parts of the awesome attacking trio, it is Suarez who the Celtic coaching staff will be most concerned with. And while he may end up regretting it come the final whistle, Rodgers can shoulder a large part of the responsibility for Suarez’s evolution to the prolific striking machine he is today.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.