London – Controversy stalks Luis Suarez more than any English Premier League player, and the Liverpool striker will again be under the spotlight in Sunday's high-profile match against fierce rivals Manchester United.
The Uruguay international has found his touch in front of goal this season and scored 15 times in the league - second only to United's Robin van Persie - but negative headlines are never far away.
Often criticized for his theatrical dives, Suarez stirred up another furor last Sunday by using his hand to score what proved to be the winning goal in an FA Cup match against non-league Mansfield.
Now, Suarez returns to Old Trafford for the first time since snubbing a pre-match handshake with United defender Patrice Evra, reigniting a drawn-out racism-related feud and ensuring he will receive a hot reception this weekend.
United manager Alex Ferguson described Suarez as a “disgrace” after that particular encounter in February but hopes all the talk this time round will be about action on the field between England's two most successful clubs.
“There will always be a certain build-up to a Manchester United-Liverpool game, simply because of the history between the two clubs,” Ferguson said. “It brings its own agenda in terms of profile and pre-match discussion. Last year it was unfortunate with the Suarez behavior. I think, hopefully, it is behind both clubs now and we can just look forward to the game.”
Gone are the days when United and Liverpool went head-to-head for the title - the last of Liverpool's 18 English championships came in 1990 -and the chasm between the teams has perhaps never been greater. Liverpool is down in eighth place after 21 matches, already 21 points behind leader United.
“Liverpool probably haven't done as well as they'd have liked over the last few years, and they'd probably admit that,” veteran United midfielder Paul Scholes said.
Yet there are signs that Liverpool are slowly on the rise, with its players starting to understand the methods and tactics employed by highly rated new manager Brendan Rodgers. The team has won three of its last four games by three-goal margins.
Rodgers has seen Suarez blossom in his second full season in English football while England captain Steven Gerrard is rediscovering his best form in midfield, scoring five goals.
“I think my performances are getting closer to where I want them to be,” Gerrard said, “so if I can add goals to those performances then maybe people will start saying the old Steven Gerrard is back.”
United is still in the distance, however, with Van Persie's 16
goals in his first season at the club helping Ferguson's side move seven points clear of reigning champion Manchester City.
With City facing an away match Sunday against Arsenal, where it hasn't won in 37 years, it would be no surprise if that gap at the top had grown by the end of the weekend, especially with City midfielder Yaya Toure at the African Cup of Nations for potentially six weeks.
“Seven points is not a small gap and we can't allow that to increase,” City midfielder Gareth Barry said. “But sometimes the pressure can actually flip around to the team in front and the one chasing can go into games more relaxed.”
All the other matches are on Saturday, when third-place Tottenham visits last-place Queens Park Rangers, whose hopes of staving off relegation were boosted with a 1-0 win at Chelsea last time out.
That unexpected victory not only lifted QPR within five points of safety but dented the already-slim title hopes of Chelsea, which has a tough game at Stoke next.
Also, it's: Sunderland vs. West Ham; Reading vs. West Bromwich Albion; Norwich vs. Newcastle; Fulham vs. Wigan; Everton vs. Swansea; and Aston Villa vs. Southampton. – Sapa-AP