Luis Suarez faces mental test with Evra and Chiellini in Barca-Juve UCL final
The Champions League and Luis Suarez are inextricably intertwined, at least in the striker's mind. Interviewing him for TalkSPORT around this time last year, the Uruguayan spoke at length about several topics but the one area he constantly referred back to was Europe's premier competition.
"Dream" was the noun he used most. In the four long years he spent away from it, the Champions League had taken on something of a mystical quality for Suarez. The simple pursuit of hearing that anthem again was enough to drive him to tireless effort with Liverpool. Now, 14 months since that conversation, the No. 9 is not only back in the Champions League, he is one game away from winning it as his Barcelona side take on Juventus.
You can guarantee Suarez has dreamed of that moment too. Unlike some players, he does not see football as a trade, or a way of buying the best cars or the biggest houses. It is a passion, he consumes it avidly, is capable of debating about other leagues and other teams in detail. Should Barcelona lift the trophy on June 6, it will be a day that their forward has envisaged in his head many, many times.
SUAREZ'S HISTORY OF CONTROVERSIES
June 2014 - Bites Giorgio Chiellini - 4-month ban.
April 2013 - Bites Branislav Ivanovic - 10-game ban.
Dec. 2011 - "Offensive gesture" at Fulham fans - 1-game ban.
Dec. 2011 - Found guilty of racially abusing Evra - 8-game ban.
Nov. 2010 - Bites Otman Bakkal - 7-game ban.
July 2010 - Red card in World Cup for handball vs. Ghana.
Nov. 2007 - Altercation with teammate - suspended by Ajax.
Feb. 2007 - Sent off on Uruguay debut for dissent.
But, if that wasn't enough to motivate him, there is also the presence of two individuals on the opposite side of the field that have played a part in defining Suarez's career. As most will know, separate confrontations with defenders Patrice Evra and Giorgio Chiellini led to Suarez missing eight games for Liverpool and 11 for Barcelona through suspension.
The outcome of hearings regarding both incidents judged the Uruguayan to be in the wrong, but at times his attitude has painted the picture of someone who feels he was on the receiving end of unfair treatment just as much as handing it out, apologies mixed with complaints over the severity of reactions.
Rightly or wrongly, Suarez will feel he has some unfinished business on the Olympiastadion pitch. His position up front means proximity to Chiellini and Evra is a certainty. The former will be one of the players closest to him; the latter tasked with tracking his runs out on the right whenever Lionel Messi decides to come inside.
Mentally, the two defenders will hope they can use their previous run-ins with the striker to their advantage. Much of Suarez's game relies on instinct, his snap-shot against Manchester City in the last-16 of the Champions League a perfect example. There will be an unavoidable temptation to second-guess himself whenever battling for the ball with Evra and Chiellini in June, aware of the intense scrutiny on his every move. How he handles that mental minefield will be key for both teams.
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He will have some help in his task. When Luis Enrique took the job as Barcelona first-team coach, one of the people he brought with him was sports psychologist Joaquin Valdes. It's time for him to really prove his worth -- with Suarez on the same pitch as Evra and Chiellini in his first Champions League final, Valdes will find himself just as busy as his namesake [Victor] used to be when guarding Barcelona's net.
Key in Suarez's mentality is why he is in Barcelona in the first place. The possibility of lifting that trophy is a huge part of what pushed him to swap Liverpool for the Camp Nou. There is a tendency to focus on the romantic side of Suarez's move to the Catalan capital -- on the residence of his wife's family in the city and the nights he spent at the stadium as a spectator -- but there was also a huge competitive sway.
Speaking with UEFA last month he admitted as much: Barca offered him a realistic chance of winning the biggest trophy possible at club level, where his other teams, even Liverpool, couldn't. His logic has proven to be sound as, in one season, the ultimate prize is within touching distance.
Suarez has been no passenger on that journey; he has actively driven his team forward. Barca's route to the final is reminiscent of the old European Cup: they have beaten the champions of the Netherlands, France, England and Germany.
It was against 2013-14 Eredivisie title holders, former club Ajax, that the Blaugrana's big summer signing made his European debut for them. It was also the game in which he showed how much of a mark he could really make. Moving to centre-forward in the second half, his excellent performance freed up valuable space for Messi, offering a hint at the formula that would prove so successful for Luis Enrique in the months to come.
In the knockout stage, that formula has seen Suarez score twice against Manchester City, twice against PSG, then create two in a Man of the Match showing against Bayern Munich.
His decisiveness in taking down winners of three of Europe's top leagues leaves little doubt over his importance to Barcelona and the man standing in the other dugout, Massimiliano Allegri, is keenly aware of how much damage Suarez can cause when he is motivated. Curiously, the last Champions League game the player took part in before moving to Barcelona was in December 2010, against Allegri's Milan. Serving a domestic ban for biting at the time, Suarez created Ajax's second goal in the 2-0 win, taking three defenders out of the game with a brilliant dribble.
Allegri will hope his Juventus defenders can return the favour this time around, or that the mask of serenity in his new surroundings slips from Suarez's face under the media's intense scrutiny.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.