Head-to-Head: Heitinga v Suarez
Are the former Ajax teammates to finally meet again?
Once team-mates but very rarely opponents, John Heitinga and Luis Suarez look set to meet for the first time in a Merseyside derby on Saturday.
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The duo played together for Dutch giants Ajax in the 2007/08 season before Heitinga moved to Atletico Madrid and, subsequently, Everton.
A trio of meetings at both international and domestic level – and countless Ajax training sessions – mean the pair are not exactly unfamiliar. And yet, on Merseyside, Suarez and Heitinga have never collided.
Wembley, therefore, offers the perfect playground for the former colleagues to finally do domestic battle again. And an intriguing reunion it promises to be.
evertonfc.com's stats tool reveals Suarez is Liverpool’s leading scorer this term having notched on 13 occasions, while Heitinga has been a near ever-present in the league's third tightest defence.
Indeed, the Dutchman put in another commanding display on Easter Monday as the Blues recorded their 13th clean sheet of the campaign to keep up the scintillating form which has seen them rise above the Reds in the Premier League table and book a final four place at Wembley.
Heitinga has been integral in both feats, a glut of impressive performances having also propelled him to the top of evertonfc.com’s Player of the Season voting this week.
An unrelenting commitment and near-faultless reading of the game have been key, the 28-year-old’s 32 blocks and 17 clearances evidence of his value to a defence which has conceded fewer shots on target than any other top-flight rearguard.
And, as he prepares to make his 100th appearance in an Everton jersey, Heitinga may well need to call on those qualities once again; Suarez has registered 130 shot on goal this term - some 45 more than strike partner Andy Carroll - while a record of 10 assists and 38 successful crosses show his influence – and threat – go well beyond scoring.
Heitinga should also be mindful his former Ajax cohort has attracted a whopping 83 fouls this term, making him one of the English game’s most felled performers.
One man with an idea of how to thwart the Uruguayan at Wembley, however, is Everton's former FA Cup-winning captain Kevin Ratcliffe.
"You can't afford to get too close to Suarez," warns Ratcliffe, who helped Howard Kendall's side keep a clean sheet against Watford to lift the trophy in 1984. "He's one of those sorts of players where if you do, you can bring him down easily.
"It's very tricky, but you have to stay on your feet. You can't be 99 per cent sure of a challenge, you have to be absolutely certain."
But Ratcliffe, a player who mastered the art of defending during his 12 years on Merseyside, lifting four major honours in the process, is confident Heitinga is the man to keep the Anfield artisan quiet.
"John's improved lots over the season, along with the whole of the side," he says. “For me, he'll be hard-pushed to beat Leighton Baines for Player of the Season, but he's definitely in with a shout. He’s been one of the best defenders for us, certainly."
Before his big money move to Merseyside, Suarez had joined Heitinga at Ajax in a move from Eredivisie rivals FC Groningen, where he had come up against his future teammate in both league meetings of the 2006/07 campaign.
Suarez scored in each contest but both resulted in 3-2 wins for the Amsterdam giants, Heitinga also netting in the second.
On the international stage, the Uruguayan’s infamous goalline handball against Ghana may have helped his country reach the semi-finals of World Cup in 2010, but his suspension meant he was powerless in the next game as Heitinga and his compatriots rolled into the final.
The two nations then met in a friendly in June last year, with the Liverpool man scoring late in a 1-1 draw before watching his teammates prevail on penalties.
The striker made his Reds debut after the second Merseyside derby of the 2010/11 campaign, however, while Heitinga was injured for this season’s meeting at Goodison Park and then a rested, unused substitute in the reverse fixture at Anfield last month.
On Saturday, the comrades-turned-counterparts should finally go head-to-head again - and on one of the grandest stages of all. It may well have been worth the wait.