Gus Poyet has said he hopes Luis Suárez is not forced out of England this summer following his return from an eight-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra and the Uruguayan has questioned the need for pre-match handshakes following the Liverpool striker's snub to the Manchester United left-back last weekend.
Brighton & Hove Albion's manager has been one of Suárez's staunchest defenders since the controversy erupted in October and believes the treatment his compatriot receives from now until the end of the season will decide whether he wants to stay. "I hope Luis is lucky enough to have a normal season," says Poyet. "The other day he just tried to volley a ball and he volleyed [Scott Parker's] stomach. I watch it on television and I see it 150 times."
The message is clear: do not chase Suárez out of the country by blowing minor incidents out of proportion. After all it is not normally easy to feel unwelcome in a foreign land, even though Poyet accepts that foreign players need to adapt to England before England adapts to them. Before he joined Chelsea in 1997 his Real Zaragoza team-mate, Nayim, who had played for Tottenham Hotspur, gave him "so much information it was scary".
"I will do everything to win a football match," says Poyet. "Whatever you imagine. And then you come to England and it's 'don't do this, don't do that'. Don't go down. I got injured in my first season and I was paying a lot of attention to how you need to behave." He will not be telling his players to go out of their way to wind up Suárez, though. "That will happen anywhere in the world but not here. If it was in Spain, all the players would be talking all week about it. For you, that is unfair."
Do not expect a Brighton player to ignore Suárez in the pre-match handshake then, a pointless ritual in Poyet's eyes. "I don't know what the difference is if I shake hands with you and after I want to go through you and smash you and kill you. In my time at Chelsea our biggest rivals were Manchester United and Arsenal. If I shake hands with Roy Keane, that means he won't kick me afterwards? What is the point? We're showing off."
Liverpool's biggest threat needs no introduction to Poyet, who is well aware of the danger Suárez poses to the Championship side's hopes of causing a major upset at Anfield on Sunday afternoon and, although he hopes the recent controversies surrounding the striker do not cause him to leave England this summer, he would rather his team did not have to try to stop him. "I want him to play in England," says Poyet. "But I hope he doesn't play against us. I want the best players on the pitch but not against me!"
Brighton have already played Liverpool once this season, losing 2-1 at the Amex Stadium in the Carling Cup in September. At the time they were third in the Championship, had beaten Sunderland in the Carling Cup and seemed a decent bet to emulate Norwich City and win back-to-back promotions to the Premier League. Then reality intervened. "The Carling Cup took a lot from us," admits Poyet. "We gave everything we had at the start of the season. I had calls from everyone about how well we performed." Brighton did not win again until November, dropping into mid-table.
Poyet acknowledges his players were stretched to the limit mentally. He failed to see it coming. He has learned from that. So have they. After a disappointing end to 2011 Brighton have begun the new year with a fresh spring in their step, lie two points behind the play-offs and are unbeaten in their past 10 matches, a run that took in a victory in the last round over Newcastle United.
The man responsible for that victory was Will Buckley, a 22-year-old winger whose run and cross forced Newcastle's Mike Williamson to concede the decisive own-goal. With Buckley having scored five goals in his last seven games, Liverpool will have to be wary of one of the Championship's rising stars. "We need to make sure Will can do what he's doing in the last month," says Poyet. "It's not easy but he has been outstanding. He's always doing the right thing at the right time." José Enrique has been warned.
It is almost 29 years to the day since Brighton went to Anfield in the fifth round of the FA Cup and stunned Liverpool, beating them 2-1 on their way to the final, where they lost in a replay to Manchester United. A year later they beat the league champions 2-0 in the fourth round, this time on their own patch. History beckons again – as long as Brighton can keep Suárez quiet.