Suarez is Barca's main man, says Neil Humphreys
Suarez is the most important player for Barcelona this season
QUARTER-FINAL, 2ND LEG
ATLETICO MADRID v BARCELONA
(Tomorrow, 2.45am, Singtel TV Ch 112 & StarHub TV Ch 212)
- Barcelona lead 2-1 from first leg
A funny thing happened on the way to the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.
Barcelona got lost. Their weary navigators mislaid their compasses.
Lionel Messi and Neymar found the route to goal littered with obstacles. Most of all, they missed Luis Suarez.
If ever a footballer's value was judged by his absence, it must be the Uruguayan in recent weeks.
A staggering 45 goals in 45 games this season already underlined his importance, but his recent no-shows rendered him priceless.
Suarez isn't necessarily superior to either Messi or Neymar, but Barcelona's prestigious attack just isn't the same when he's not around.
Their one-goal advantage over Atletico Madrid is a precarious lead going into the second leg tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Their safe passage to the semi-finals depends, perhaps for the first time, on Suarez more than Messi.
The striker's domestic suspension revealed the lethargy that is slowly eating away at a Barca side that have played 12 games more than Real Madrid, and seven more than their Champions League opponents.
A three-game winless streak in La Liga is not a crisis, but it is indicative of the Catalan side's quiet, gentle slide into uncertainty without Suarez.
They were lucky to win 2-1 against Atletico with him in the first leg, relying on his brace and Fernando Torres' red card to prevail in a contest that was closer than expected.
But there's nowhere to hide in La Liga, not any more.
Intially, there was. The seemingly insurmountable eight-point gap between Barcelona and Atletico (they were 12 in front of Real) provided a solid facade to prop up the side's weakening joints.
When a two-goal lead was thrown away against Villarreal, no one really noticed. And the Clasico defeat was considered a blip, an entertaining diversion as the Catalan side romped to another title.
It was only the shocking 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad last weekend that really pulled back the curtain.
Barcelona are wobbling. The flaws are obvious and spreading, particularly up front where Messi and Neymar are off their game.
To challenge the consistency of either footballer is to risk being accused of nitpicking, like accusing Stephen Hawking of laziness for not unlocking one of the secrets of the universe this week.
But the form of both Messi and Neymar must be of concern to coach Luis Enrique.
At Socieded, Neymar's contribution was negligible.
Marooned on the left wing, the Brazilian was isolated without the support of Suarez, highlighting once again what an extraordinary impact the Uruguayan has had at Barcelona, particularly this season.
Suarez would have relished the feisty aspects of Sociedad's defensive approach as the club parked a fleet of buses as they held on to their unlikely lead.
Neymar plodded where Suarez would have probed, chasing and scampering with the eagerness of a tongue-flapping puppy chasing a stick.
And yet, Messi fared no better.
A 500th career goal looms large on the horizon. The trouble is it has done for weeks. His four-game drought may not concern mere mortals, but it's Messi's worst run since 2009.
A tactical tweak hasn't helped. Enrique has sought to overcompensate for Suarez's absence by shifting Messi from the right to a more central role.
On the plus side, Messi is always available for a pass. His teammates immediately looked for him in the Socieded game. But he was rarely in the right position to do anything with it.
So often at the apex of Barcelona's attack, he now finds himself in a muddled, middling position that is neither here nor there. Messi has desperately missed Suarez.
A street footballer in the most positive sense, Suarez relishes a one-on-one confrontation, always spoiling for a fight, always eager to drag a defender away from Neymar and Messi.
He's the selfless, slightly mad, foot soldier who tears across No Man's Land with nothing but a bayonet to draw enemy fire away from his dashing comrades.
His performance will be pivotal at Atletico because Barcelona are running out of legs.
Andres Iniesta has been deployed sparingly in recent weeks, with Enrique keen to mothball his ageing maverick ahead of key games.
But his regular stand-in, Arda Turan, was so ineffective against Socieded that he was hauled off after an hour (on the opposite flank, Rafinha was equally poor and replaced with Iniesta at the interval).
At the worst time, Barca appear out of breath and occasionally out of creative ideas, struggling to get the ball to either Neymar or Messi.
Their buck-toothed bulldog cannot be unleashed soon enough.
Messi may be the greatest player of all time, but he's not the most important player at Barcelona right now.
That role belongs to Suarez.
'SHOW THE WORLD WE'RE THE BEST'
Barcelona head to Atletico Madrid tomorrow morning (Singapore time) for the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, aiming to show their campaign is still on track for domestic and European success.
Luis Enrique's men will defend a 2-1 lead at the Vicente Calderon, but they head into the tie on the back of successive defeats in La Liga by Real Madrid and Real Sociedad.
As a result, Barcelona are now just three points ahead of Atletico and four in front of rivals Real, a slender advantage which could be all but wiped out by the time they kick off against Valencia on Sunday.
Enrique (below), though, has challenged his team to show they are the best team in the world by producing the required response over the closing weeks of the season.
Barcelona fell behind in the first leg as Fernando Torres fired in what could yet prove a priceless away goal for Atletico, only to then get himself sent off for a second caution ahead of half-time.
That ultimately swung the balance of the match, as Luis Suarez netted a second-half brace.
"It's an opportunity for us to demonstrate we're the best in the world like our shirt says," Enrique said yesterday. "Everything is to play for and to win. No one's going to leave here crying."
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic believes his teammates can rise to the challenge once again.
"We will try to look forward and forget the (Sociedad) match. It was a defeat determined by small details," he said on Canal Plus. "We are all united like a big family. We have to stick with this mentality for the next match. We have no doubt.
"Sometimes you get something like a victory over Atletico - a special game like last week could be a boost."
Barcelona were set to travel to Madrid yesterday without midfielder Rafinha and defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Brazilian Rafinha made his return from some seven months out after a serious knee injury in the first leg and then started against Sociedad, only to head off at half-time with a thigh problem. Centre back Vermaelen, meanwhile, has a calf injury.
Gerard Pique, though, is expected to shake off a hip problem to face Atletico.
Suarez missed the defeat at Sociedad because of a domestic suspension, while the likes of Jordi Alba, Andres Iniesta and Rakitic all started on the bench.
Atletico will be without Torres, who serves a one-match European ban. The striker said yesterday that he was wrongly dismissed in the first leg.
"I'm convinced that the second yellow card was not a card, I felt a mix of impotence and frustration," Torres told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser, describing his foul on Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets.
"When I see it again, I see a slip-up. It's not a kick nor a late tackle. The only argument is that it was an action that could have been avoided. My ambition to make it 2-0 ended up harming the team.
"I'm certain that, with 11 players, we would have won." - Wire Services.
BY THE numbers
Barcelona have won their last seven games against Atletico in all competitions.
All three encounters between Atletico and Barcelona this season have all followed the same template: Atletico score first and Barca win 2-1.
Atletico Madrid have picked up five red cards in their past five competitive games against Barcelona, who have not had a single man dismissed during the same period.