Uruguayan's return from 10-match ban overshadowed as Manchester United secure a fourth-round home tie with Norwich
For five long months Luis Suárez has "suffered", according to Brendan Rodgers, as though the Liverpool striker's teeth inadvertently strayed into Branislav Ivanovic on that April day at Anfield and he had been wronged by the 10-match ban that followed. The menace returned at Old Trafford but to Liverpool's immense relief it was confined to the Uruguayan's performance against Manchester United.
Defeat was painful for Rodgers' team in the Capital One Cup third round, another lapse in concentration at a set-piece costing Liverpool for the second game in succession. But having arrived at Old Trafford with doubts over the commitment and temperament of their leading talent, Liverpool departed with only encouragement from the response of Suárez.
Rodgers did call it right when conceding the 26-year-old owes Liverpool after another lengthy suspension and having spent the summer flirting with Arsenal, plus the admission that his rehabilitation must be prolonged. Suárez appeared in the mood to repay that debt against United. In many respects his first competitive outing for Liverpool in 157 days was unexceptional. By Suárez standards, at least. And that, for Liverpool, represents a decent start.
It could have been a dream return had his second half free-kick not deflected on to David de Gea's crossbar. The free-kick stemmed from a trademark Suárez spin away from Phil Jones in a 90-minute contribution that grew in threat and influence and was heralded without reservation from the 7,000 Liverpool supporters present. "I thought he was excellent," said the Liverpool manager. "His contribution was excellent. The support the fans have given him is unique. He clapped the crowd before the match started, he recognised that support, and now he needs to get his head down and repay that support with goals and I'm sure he will."
But Liverpool know even the return of a player with Suárez's gifts does not guarantee victory. Integration into a team can take longer than acceptance from the crowd. Liverpool won seven, drew two and lost only one of the 10 matches Suárez missed for biting Ivanovic. They also won five, drew two and lost two of the nine matches he sat out two seasons ago for using racially abusive language towards Patrice Evra and for improper conduct at Fulham. His return to Kenny Dalglish's the team in 2011-12 coincided with six defeats in 12 games as Liverpool's season deteriorated after a last-gasp Robin van Persie winner for Arsenal. They should not be sent into a tail-spin by this United reverse, however.
Daniel Sturridge has flourished in Suárez's absence, the collective off-day against Southampton on Saturday apart, with the confidence of a regular starting role enhanced by his position at the head of the Liverpool attack. The Liverpool manager sees no reason to shift the England international now Suárez is available, perhaps due to the latter having to regain favour as much as the former's commanding form, but that question was parked at Old Trafford as Rodgers went with a bold 3-4-1-2 formation. His adventure was reflected in a dominant first-half performance that stretched the United defence without extending De Gea seriously until after the interval.
Rodgers's decision to partner Suárez alongside Sturridge was vindicated as they quickly re-established a connection last seen on 21 April, when the 26-year-old lofted a glorious chip over Chelsea's defence for the England striker to score in that infamous encounter at Anfield. After handshakes all round, obligatory jeers from the Stretford end and Suárez songs from the away end, the Uruguayan enjoyed a prominent role in stretching the United defence.
His return was never going to be as seamless as Rodgers had proclaimed, despite the striker having the Confederations Cup, two World Cup qualifiers and several behind-closed-doors friendlies to keep him sharp. Suárez's early runs betrayed an understandable over-eagerness and left his team-mates spraying passes into empty spaces. A touch to control José Enrique's inch-perfect cross over Jonny Evans was heavier than Suárez he would typically show, though he was still able to connect again to force De Gea into his first save of the night. And Rodgers was infuriated when the striker decided against a first-time shot from Enrique's pass and insteadallowed United to clear his ambitious ball to Victor Moses.
But it was hardly a display encased in rust. Gradually, the runs connected with Steven Gerrard's vision, Suárez began to appear across the United back-line and his understanding with Sturridge developed. The striker had only half chances to mark his return in style, with Evans and Rafael da Silva intervening and another effort hitting the side-netting before his free-kick struck the bar. "He is one of the most determined people I have met in my life," said Rodgers. "He is very thick-skinned and a wonderful talent. He was never going to be fazed by making his comeback here."