Suarez and Liverpool roll toward a showdown

Updated: 23 December 2013 16:47 IST

Liverpool's Luis Suarez is expected to play a crucial role against Manchester City as English Premier League gets set for a busy Christmas weekend.

England upholds some mighty odd soccer traditions around Christmas.

While the rest of Europe gives players (and fans) time off with their families, the English pack in three games for every team during Christmas week. The club on top of the league on Dec. 25 very often goes on to win the championship. And with Luis Suarez celebrating his huge new contract with Liverpool by scoring two more spectacular goals on Saturday, his team now leads the Premier League, which it has not won in 23 years.

Liverpool could, however, drop down to second if Arsenal beats Chelsea on Monday.

In any case, Liverpool's joy could be short-lived. The forecast is wild, wet and windy for Thursday, when Liverpool makes the short journey to face the only team in the league likely to outscore it - Manchester City.

"We're very pleased to be where we are," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. "But I haven't changed my opinion that the title is Manchester City's to lose."

There is only one Suarez, the rebel-turned-revelation, which is why Liverpool's American owners have just rewarded him with a deal worth 200,000 pounds a week (about $68 million) over the four-year contract.

City, with its even more generous owner in Abu Dhabi, has several players earning more. Even though City's chief goal scorer, Sergio Aguero, is sidelined with an injury, others like Yaya Toure, Jesus Navas and even the captain of the defense, Vincent Kompany, can hit the net.

But none are doing it more regularly, or more beautifully, than Suarez.

Since he came back from his 10-game suspension for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic in April and from his threat to quit the club, Suarez, a native of Uruguay, has scored 19 goals in 12 Premier League games while setting up even more goals for others.

His two goals against Cardiff City on Saturday were wonderfully typical of his talent. Both were struck with his right foot. The first volleyed from 15 yards; the second curled low in an uncanny trajectory around the goalkeeper.

It is as if Suarez, when his mind is on the creative side of the game, has this extrasensory ability that perhaps only Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo share.

And, like those two, Suarez is not simply a finisher. He creates, too, and his unselfish pass set up Raheem Sterling's goal to put Liverpool ahead, 3-0, at halftime.

After that, quite possibly conserving energy for Thursday's encounter in Manchester, Liverpool took its foot off the pedal. Cardiff was made of sterner stuff in the second half.

"I told the players 'Be brave, and be on the front foot, and show why you play at this level,'" Cardiff manager Malky Mackay said, describing his halftime address to the team. The response was a more resilient second half and a consolation goal by Cardiff's Jordon Mutch to leave the final score at 3-1 before 44,000 spectators at Anfield Stadium, including Vincent Tan, the Malaysian businessman who three and a half years ago saved Cardiff City's team from insolvency.

Tan gave, or lent, the club about $40 million, and though his visits to the capital city of Wales are infrequent, City has risen to the top division for the first time in half a century.

Tan, though, is neither passive nor predictable. Last week, apparently upset that Mackay had told reporters he hoped the team might be strengthened in January, Tan emailed an ultimatum to the coach. The gist: Resign or be fired for Christmas.
Maybe Tan has that power to fire at will in his other businesses, but he faces some 20,000 Cardiff followers who will not meekly allow him to dictate to their club.

"Malky forever!" some of them sang at Anfield.

"Go back to Malaysia!" their banners read.

"I won't be resigning," Mackay said after the game. "I'm a proud and passionate man. I couldn't leave these people, the players, the staff, the fans. After what we've shared over two and a half years, I could never look myself in the mirror if I walked away." He acknowledged that Tan had the power to sack him.

Tan said nothing in public. He wore sunglasses, unmoved except for the time he put his gloved hands up to politely applaud his team's consolation goal.

If the owner understands soccer, he may know that Cardiff is 50 years behind Liverpool in the cycle of success, and it is doing quite well under Mackay to even be in the Premier League this Christmas.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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