Barcelona's opening game of their league title defence on Saturday night began in familiar fashion. The Catalan club hosted the Basque side Alaves at the Camp Nou stadium. Alaves gamely kept out Barca until the hour mark—having ceded more than 70 per cent possession of the ball—when the dam burst.
First, Lionel Messi rolled a free-kick under the wall to score for the 15th La Liga season in a row. Philippe Coutinho, who entered the fray as a half-time substitute, added a second with a fine solo effort before Messi concluded a 3-0 rout a few minutes after midnight with the final act of the game. With Messi in its ranks, Barcelona will be difficult to unseat as champions.
Is there cause for concern, though, with the form of his chief strike partner over the last four years—Luis Suarez? The Uruguayan squandered a few half-chances during the game. His sluggishness raises concerns tabled before the match that he might repeat the goal drought—which included a five-game scoreless streak—he endured early last season and more profound questions about his long-term future with the club.
In a pre-match press conference, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde dismissed the doubters, maintaining once Suarez starts scoring he doesn't stop: "He comes with a guarantee of competitiveness and fight. It's a matter of patience and perseverance."
Despite Valverde's faith in Suarez, the statistics point towards a steady decline in his performances, albeit from great heights. Domestically, he hasn't reached again the incredible feat of the 2015-2016 season when he scored 40 goals—marking the only season in the last decade when a player ousted Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo as the top scorer in the Spanish league. Two seasons ago, Suarez scored 29 goals; last season, 25.
The downward curve with his goalscoring in the UEFA Champions League prompts greater concern, given the fevered pressure in Spain among Barcelona's fans to match Real Madrid's recent, three-in-a-row success in the tournament. In 2016-2017, Suarez scored three times, and last season just once. That compares unfavourably with, say, the decisive Ronaldo, who scored 12 and 15 goals, respectively, helping to fire Real Madrid towards its triumphs.
"I do think there is a physical decline with Suarez because in Ajax he played more on the wings, and he used to cut inside," says Inaki Lorda, a journalist with Spanish football magazine Panenka. "At Liverpool, he was a player that used to occupy a lot of the pitch. He covered a huge tract of space, and with Barca, he has started little by little to stay more in the area.
"So I think that physically he has been deteriorating, which puts pressure on him. He is still working hard, but even when lately he hasn't had any serious injury—his last serious injury was four years ago at the end of his time with Liverpool, just before the World Cup—football-wise, he always tends to start the season poorly. The other day in the Spanish Super Cup final, he couldn't even string two passes together. When the season gets going, and he gets more training under his belt, he will improve, but every year it will be harder."
Age is a factor. Suarez will turn 32 in January, but Lorda is still backing him to get goals—this season at least.
"I don't think his goalscoring will be affected," Lorda says. "Because of the way Barca plays, he will score 20, 25 goals in the league. Of that I have no doubt because he is so good and alongside him he has guys like Messi, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, [Ousmane] Dembele who will create a lot of opportunities for him to score goals.
"Maybe he won't be able to make them in the same way he used to do, scoring individual goals. You remember the two goals he scored against PSG in Paris in the knockout stages when Barca won the Champions League in 2015? Probably he won't still score those types of goals, and it will be obvious his deterioration with each passing year."
Suarez's body could also become an issue. He has the chunky frame of a player whose speed off the mark will escape him quicker than other more lithe strikers, and he has famously spent his career playing through injury. "I never saw him in the treatment room," said his former Liverpool team-mate, Jordan Henderson. For example, during one legendary incident, Suarez had to borrow a pair of Steven Gerrard's bigger-sized boots to fit around his swollen ankle, and he still went out and scored a hat-trick.
Lorda believes Suarez will have to be rationed more in the same way Zinedine Zidane persuaded Ronaldo to sit out games in his final two seasons with Real Madrid so Ronaldo could peak for the business end of the UEFA Champions League.
"What happened with Cristiano is that they started rotating him so he didn't play too much in La Liga," Lorda says. "He was rested. If Real Madrid played on a Wednesday, usually Cristiano didn't play on the weekend. Valverde should start doing the same—for example in the games against the likes of Rayo Vallecano or Valladolid—if he wants Suarez to stay fresh come February. Especially because of the type of player Suarez is—he empties himself in games."
Barcelona will have to wrestle with a post-Suarez future, sooner rather than later. "Barca should start thinking about a replacement for Suarez, maybe not this season but the next one," says Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. "The problem is I that don't see any other forward who is so well adapted to Barca's game. Also, Suarez has a very good understanding with Messi. He knows almost what Messi is going to do before Messi does—they have been together for so many years. He knows where to go so Messi can pass him the ball.
"Somebody new would have to learn the way Barca plays. It's not easy to adapt. They have habits and a specific way to play. It's similar at Atletico Madrid. With Diego Simeone, you have to adapt to Simeone's methods."
Ramiro Martin, author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol, concurs: "Suarez has something commendable: He's adapted to the game of Messi like no one else. And without complaints. Something that [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic could not do, for example, and, to a lesser extent, Samuel Eto'o did not take well.
"When Pep Guardiola asked Messi to play in the 'false nine' role, it displaced Eto'o and later David Villa, as the favoured position of both the Cameroonian and the Spaniard was centre-forward. Suarez, who arrived at Barca after having been the reference point of his two great teams—Ajax and Liverpool—adapted with great intelligence to the game and the movements, which are not easy to read, of Messi."
The relationship Suarez has with Messi goes beyond the pitch. Messi has had several close friends in Barcelona's dressing room over his time as a senior player in the squad, including Cesc Fabregas, the reserve goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto and Dani Alves. None of them, says Lorda, have been as close to Messi as Suarez. They're neighbours in Castelldefels, a seaside spot outside Barcelona. Their kids go to the same school. Their wives are friendly. They share business interests outside of football.
Martin says there is no evidence to suggest, though, that Messi would provide protection for Suarez if it came to a coach's decision to drop him or if the club decided to sell him.
"That [supposition is] relative and has a lot of legend," he says. "Ronaldinho and Deco were Leo's best friends at the beginning of his career, for example. Messi himself points to them as 'keys' in his adaptation to the first team, in addition to being friendly with them outside the game. This friendship did not prevent—after the arrival of Guardiola as coach—both, even though they had more football to give, being transferred. Messi does not get involved in these decisions, as has been proven."
If Suarez goes through a slump this season, Valverde hasn't many alternative options if he has to consider the nuclear option of dropping him. The squad's back-up centre-forwards, Munir and Paco Alcacer, are unproven at UEFA Champions League level. If Messi were to revert to his old "false nine" role and play alongside, say, Coutinho and Dembele up front, it would rob the team of something, believes Martin.
"Messi's evolution—and it was evident in the World Cup—indicates his presence is boosted by being a playmaker, with great freedom. And that requires having a reference forward in front of him."
Besides, Suarez—who has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming career-ending controversies in his time—has a rare capacity to endure.
"With Suarez, there will be a natural decline," says Martin. "But as a journalist, I have learned something in 20 years: Never question a natural-born striker—they tend to leave you badly exposed just when you've doubted them."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz