It took Atletico Madrid’s head coach Diego Simeone a matter of seconds, after discovering Luis Suarez might be available from Barcelona last summer, to urge his employers to pounce.
Deal done, it took Suarez two minutes to provide his first assist as an Atletico player, quarter of an hour to open his goalscoring account, and less than 20 minutes to register his first brace in an Atletico jersey.
From that start, it has taken far less than five months for Suarez to become a barometer of Atletico’s state of wellbeing. For most of the time, they have soared together. Suarez is, jointly with his old ally Lionel Messi, top scorer in Spain’s Primera Division. Atletico are its leaders.
The snag, as Simeone’s team prepare for a demanding tie against Chelsea in the Champions League, is that Suarez’s goalscoring run has stalled over recent weeks. So have Atletico.
When Suarez registered his fourth brace of the season in the 4-2 win at Cadiz at the end of January, it put Atletico 10 points clear at the summit.
Four matchdays later, the lead over Real Madrid has been whittled to three points, albeit with a match in hand. Atleti have dropped seven points of their last 12 and Suarez has gone three games – his longest drought yet at his new club – without a goal.
The veteran warrior came close on Saturday, at home to Levante, striking the post with a direct free-kick. But Atletico were 1-0 down by then, and a late Levante goal confirmed a first home loss for Simeone’s team since 2019. Their fortress record at the Metropolitano has been dented, though it would be no ally tonight anyway, the ‘home’ leg against Chelsea having been moved to Bucharest because of public health restrictions on travel from Britain to Spain.
There will be no spectators for either leg, which at least spares Suarez his customary hostile reception from Chelsea followers. There is history there, from Suarez’s time with Liverpool.
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Famously, he was the spearhead of the Liverpool whose 11-match winning run took them to the cusp of the 2013/14 Premier League title until a 2-0 defeat at Anfield by Chelsea, with two fixtures left, allowed Manchester City to leapfrog Liverpool. Notoriously, the previous season, Suarez bit Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic while challenging for the ball, one of three biting incidents in the Uruguayan’s chequered career.
At Atletico, as in his four years at Barcelona, he has been less of a magnet for controversies. But the competitive edge remains razor-sharp at 34, and Suarez has become very quickly the emblem of Atletico’s combative, feisty character under Simeone, in the way Diego Costa used to be. Suarez’s privilege is to have the gifted Joao Felix as a foil, Thomas Lemar in support, and, since the winter transfer window, the French striker Moussa Dembele as possible partner.
Joao Felix, Lemar and Dembele came out of post-Covid self-isolation last week, and Simeone is relieved to have them in Bucharest. He is without key men, though, in defence, with Kieran Trippier serving a suspension and Jose Maria Gimenez out with a muscular injury he sustained against Levante. Yannick Carrasco, the Belgian winger, is also absent.
Thomas Tuchel, who will take charge of his first European game as Chelsea head coach, anticipates “a big test” and he revealed his admiration for Suarez, who might have joined Tuchel’s then club, Paris Saint-Germain when Barcelona effectively told Suarez to leave Camp Nou back in August.
“We were interested,” said Tuchel, “because he’s one of the best forwards in world football, a born striker with the mentality that only strikers have, to show his will, intensity and anger to score, score and score. What a mentality, what a player! We know his qualities and will try and stop him.”
Tuchel confirmed Chelsea’s senior defender Thiago Silva is injured and will not be part of the plan to stymie Suarez. And also that Callum Hudson-Odoi has travelled to Romania, having been criticised by his coach for a poor half-hour in the weekend’s 1-1 draw against Southampton.
Hudson-Odoi came on as a substitute, was then substituted, and Tuchel outlined what had disappointed him – “I was not happy with his attitude” – with teammates present.
“We decided to speak to him in front of the group,” explained Tuchel. “Was it the right decision? I don't know. We did it in front of a group because it is not a big thing." For a coach less than a month into a new job, it is no small thing either.