Suarez's scoring slump overshadows Barcelona's return to form

BY Ian Hawkey • February 2, 2015

MADRID --  

Cristiano Ronaldo, banned for two games, took his seat in an executive box at the Santiago Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid this past weekend. His son sat alongside him, at least until other interests occupied the very young offspring of La Liga's leading scorer after half time. CR7 junior's seat was conspicuously empty in the later stages of Saturday afternoon once Madrid had started to flex their muscles after falling behind early against Real Sociedad, to breeze to a 4-1 win.

Ronaldo or no Ronaldo -- the Portuguese was serving the first of a two-match suspension -- the show goes on. Madrid won, without their figurehead. Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona to a victory the very next day. But both the top two in the league needed to come back from behind, at home, on Matchday 21. Barcelona suffered most -- twice they trailed against Villarreal, who exploited Barca's known frailties in the face of swift counter-attacks. Barca recovered for a 3-2 win thanks to goals from the usual pair, Neymar and Messi, and a goal from Rafinha, who was applauded vigorously by the Camp Nou crowd for his dynamic all-round input from midfield.

Rafinha will remember this weekend as a threshold moment. He has been "a prospect" for a while. He presses many of the right buttons for Barcelonistas and he has a Brazilian background, like Neymar, Dani Alves, Rivaldo and Romario, modern club icons. He combines that with an upbringing in the Barca academy, where he enrolled while still a school student. His father is Mazinho, the former Brazil midfielder, who settled in Spain while his sons were growing up. Rafinha's older brother is Thiago Alacantara, formerly of Barcelona, now of Bayern Munich.

Sunday's match was the 21-year-old Rafinha's sixth start for Barcelona this season, and his best night in the senior side. If he carries the confident, poised level of performance he showed against Villarreal into five or six more matches before May, and Barca secure a major trophy by June, he will become an endorsement of the judgment of Luis Enrique, his principal promoter, as head coach. If he becomes frustrated, in two or three years' time, by a lack of opportunity, as his older brother did, he may yet go on to another ambitious club.

What Rafinha is not yet, by a distance, is an emblem of how Barca have changed from last season to this. Rafinha is no new Cesc Fabregas. He is no Xavi-in-waiting. He still sits many rungs lower in the ladder of the midfield hierarchy than Ivan Rakitic. He is lucky, too. Rafinha bears none of the weight of expectations born by the colossal signing Barcelona made last summer to give them new impulse in a Spain, and a Europe, in which they had lost momentum. Rafinha is not under anything like the scrutiny of Luis Suarez.

Suarez was, like Rafinha, substituted late in the game against Villarreal. Barcelona had their 3-2 advantage by the time both players were replaced, and the distinct reactions of Camp Nou's fans to each change illustrated something. Suarez was politely clapped from the field; Rafinha was hailed.

During the match, some isolated groans had been directed at Suarez, the $128 million recruit whose poor ratio of goals per game is beginning to become an issue among some supporters. He missed some chances that the devastating finisher that was Suarez at Liverpool last season would probably have scored. Against Villarreal there was a fluffed far-post header; there was a miscued overhead kick; there was a drive, skewed off target.

There is no lethargy about him. Suarez is guaranteed to bring industry even if there is imprecision in his game, and that is an aspect of why Barcelona valued him so high. But the fact is, he has joined a club that demand hugely of their center-forwards, and need goals to measure them by. If they fail, they tend to get replaced quickly.

In the eight years since Lionel Messi emerged as Barcelona's best attacker, several elite strikers have been hired to partner Messi in the Barca front three. Suarez has so far made less impact than any of the major recruits for that role in the time he has been playing. Compared with Thierry Henry (signed in 2007), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (2009), David Villa (2010), Alexis Sanchez (2011) and Neymar (2013), Suarez (2104) has been the least productive goalscorer over his first 12 matches in La Liga by a considerable distance. He has only two goals from 12 games now, and that in a team who have amassed 57 goals from 21 Liga fixtures.

He contributed, with passes, to two Barcelona goals against Villarreal. His assists statistics so far are sound, game for game. But his misses and poor return of goals are now the repeated focus of questions to Luis Enrique. The Barcelona coach answered more of them late Sunday night. "Luis is fundamental to our team," said the Barcelona manager of the No. 9 he had left out in the previous La Liga match, against Elche. "He is getting chances to score. He's not having the luck, but he's getting closer and closer to scoring goals."

Is it a worry? Luis Enrique says it is not. "Luis will score goals at crucial moments this season. I'm convinced of that." But maybe he should be.


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