Francis Johnston examines Fernando Torres’ upturn in fortunes of late.
As Britain braced itself for the onslaught of the St Jude storm on Sunday afternoon another natural phenomenon was already in full swing at the so called “clash of the cash” in West London. Those in the know about climate will be familiar with“El Nino” which is Spanish for “The Kid”. Those familiar with the English Premier League over the last couple of years however, are more likely to translate to “has-been”, “expensive flop”, or, going back a bit now, Fernando Torres. The nickname was given to Torres in Spain, during his days of youthful goal-grabbing for Atletico Madrid. The difficulties of recent seasons, since his £50 million move from Liverpool to Chelsea have been well publicised but against Manchester City at the weekend the forward worked himself up to gale force and eventually blew the roof off the Bridge.
With two of the league’s title contenders and financial heavyweights preparing to touch gloves, Sky showed a graphic during their build up which compared the goals already scored by strikers at the two clubs this season. While City’s front men were streaking into double figures, Chelsea’s marksmen had registered one between them.
Much has been made of Jose Mourinho’s decisions regarding his team’s forward line and especially the move to allow Romelu Lukaku, prolific last term, to go on loan to Everton where he is already scoring like nobody’s business.
Enter Torres: he worked like a man possessed, caused constant problems for the City defence, eventually bagged the winning goal and with it, a precious three points for Mourinho’s men. He looked, to use a phrase invented in 2011 and widely used since, like the Torres of old.
We have however, been here several times before. Multiple Torres “returns to form” have been heralded and then petered out before he could even begin to dream about putting the doubters in their place. He has netted a goal here and a couple there, scoring in fits and starts. He threatened under the tenure of Rafa Benitez, who many would say was appointed to “fix” him more than anything else, but ultimately he failed to see his rejuvenation through and has largely remained in the shadow of El Nino, his alter-ego. This time though, under the Special One, there are signs that things may be different, also that Mourinho’s choices about strikers may well yet turn out to be a masterstroke.
Here’s why: firstly Torres himself, why will this be the time that he finally comes good? The answer is attitude. It is early to make this call but it seems his manager has given him reassurance and belief. Before being sent off against Spurs the Spaniard was looking committed, dynamic and dangerous. On his return from suspension his selection to lead the line against City despite Samuel Eto’o’s encouraging display in his absence, was a show of faith from Mourinho. In the first half Torres got what he wanted, a glorious chance to repay his boss. Cue the ball in the stand rather than the net and another shot of the forward looking despondent, disbelieving his own failure. His response to this setback is the key. Shortly afterwards he was dropping a shoulder and surging beyond Gael Clichy, one of the league’s more fleet-footed full backs propelled mostly it seemed, by sheer desire to make amends. He reached the by-line, supplied the pass, Schurlle scored, but the Bridge rose to salute the role of Torres. Buoyed, the 29 year old then smashed a dipping effort against the bar, unlucky yes but something to dwell on, no. Fernando was looking to create his own luck. Constantly he tried to make something happen. Mourinho kept the faith as the game wore on. Over the last two years Torres has constantly been substituted but, in the final minute, when Hart and Nastasic suffered a communication breakdown in City’s rearguard, Torres was still on the pitch. A gut-busting run saw him reach the ball before it rolled behind the goal to slot in the winner. It was a simple finish but absolute vindication of his afternoon’s effort, a lost cause he had chased down. Symbolic even of his career at the moment, not pretty, but he was going to turn it in the right direction through pure guts.
Whatever way it works out for Torres it cannot be argued that he lacks experience and that is something Mourinho seems to value highly. Apart from the former Liverpool man his options include Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba. Both with plenty of miles on the clock. Almost invariably he prefers to deploy one main striker ahead of an ensemble of attacking midfielders and supporting wide men. Given Chelsea’s embarrassment of riches in terms of creative midfield talent this would seem the way to go. Even if El Nino doesn’t hit form, the Manager can opt for Eto’o and if that doesn’t work he can fall back to Ba or even the midfield itself. Oscar and Hazard for example are contributing well in terms of goals.
Even if Chelsea are scoring heavily as a team Mourinho’s decision to let Lukaku leave on loan will be heavily scrutinised as long as the young Belgian’s tally continues to outshine that of the front men who remain at Stamford Bridge. People though are looking at Lukaku’s goals and failing to see the bigger picture. The grand plan of a man who has been an instant success in almost every dugout he has sat in, been sent from or conducted borderline inappropriate celebrations from. Mourinho sees Torres and Eto’o as proven winners, ready-made title chasers, the sort of footballer his track record suggests he can turn into champions. He will no doubt appreciate Lukaku’s physical ability, his raw talent and his potential for goals. This is precisely why he’s been despatched northward. The Portuguese knows Everton are not good enough to pose a threat in the title race. They are however, more than good enough to beat a big team on their day. Lukaku will only increase their chances of doing so and he is now allowed to do so against all the big teams except Chelsea.
In what is shaping up to be the most open title race for years all of Chelsea’s strikers including those not currently at the club will have a big role to play. Regardless of what has been about his selection policy up until now, Mourinho’s men are sitting a close second. Don’t bet against some more theatrical celebrating come May.