Stop Gareth Bale, and Liverpool will stop Spurs, or so the headlines from the tabloids proclaimed. As pre-match pep talk, it settled neatly on a problem that has befuddled many a defense in recent months. But it also overlooked a couple vital points, both of which proved pivotal Sunday afternoon at Anfield.
First, does it qualify as stopping Bale when the Welshman doesn't score but "only" sets up two goals? And second, who said Bale was the only important player in the match?
With all the attention focused lately on Bale's rise to stardom, it was almost possible to forget about Luis Suarez of Liverpool. But the Premier League's leading scorer scored another Sunday, his 22nd of the season and seventh in four outings in all competitions. Thanks in large part to his contributions, Liverpool won the match.
Suarez also won the penalty that decided the result in a thrilling if sloppy match that saw the Reds succeed where so many have failed in recent weeks. Liverpool led, then trailed, then came from behind to hand Tottenham a 3-2 loss, ending Spurs' run of just one defeat in all competitions since Dec. 9.
In victory, Liverpool moved onto 45 points, level with Everton but ahead of their Merseyside rivals on goal difference. A top-four place and Champions League football remain seven points distant, but Brendan Rodgers now has his first three-match winning streak in his first season at Anfield.
Considering Spurs' recent form, much from Sunday's result might surprise. Most unexpected of all, however, is this: While Tottenham lost, they did so with Bale playing well. In other words, Liverpool stopped Spurs but not because they could stop Bale.
The 23-year-old midfielder had been in astonishing goal-scoring form of late, with 10 goals in his last eight appearances in all competitions. He didn't score Sunday, and he'll be credited with only one assist, but Bale was heavily involved in both of Tottenham's goals.
The first, which canceled out Suarez's stylish opener, came from Bale's cross from the right flank. His curling, left-footed pass found Jan Vertonghen, who headed Spurs level on the stroke of halftime.
Bale then helped put Spurs ahead early in the second half. This time a free kick, again from the right, troubled Liverpool's defense along with Michael Dawson's harrying presence. The ball landed for Vertonghen, who paused with a striker's instinct and waited for the right moment to slam home a left-footed drive.
So while Bale went scoreless in the match, one could wonder whether Bale now needs to score in order to hurt his opponents. In his new advanced, free role in the Tottenham attack, his influence reaches throughout this Spurs side and alters the entire team's performance. Near the end of the first half, when his team trailed by a goal, Bale wielded his powers more effectively than any other player on the pitch.
But for all of Bale's influence, Suarez was at times perhaps just as important for Liverpool.
The mercurial Uruguayan put the Reds ahead with a typically expert near-post finish in the 21st minute and nearly set up another six minutes later. After falling behind to Vertonghen's second, Liverpool equalized through Stewart Downing after a fortuitously poor back-pass and then grabbed the winner through captain Steven Gerrard's powerful penalty.
Almost inevitably, Suarez was the man responsible for the latter. Seizing on another defensive miscue—this time a poor clearance by Jermain Defoe—Suarez took control of the ball in the box and put himself in position to win a penalty with Benoit Assou-Ekotto's clumsy challenge.
As both the stats (see the graphs above) and the storylines will show, both Suarez and Bale raised their level of play when their teams had their separate moments of ascendancy. Such a coincidence is hardly accidental, but rather the hallmarks of influential and important players.
Bale hit perhaps greater heights, but if anything, Suarez saved the most crucial contributions for the most important times.
When the end-of-season individual awards go out at the end of the season, both Suarez and Bale will rank among the favorites for hardware. Sunday's match might not have settled any scores in the race for personal accolades, but it should serve as a powerful reminder that Suarez and Bale are among the best the Premier League has to offer at the moment.
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