When Chelsea’s billionaire owner slipped his hand into his back pocket and rustled around for the loose change that would prise Fernando Torres away from Liverpool in January of last year, he can scarcely have imagined that we would all be here, almost two years and two managers later, still waiting for the striker to deliver on the promise of his potential. Here was a proven Premier League goal machine, a World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain, a man who seemed – at certain times in his Liverpool career – not so much to be good at scoring, but to be incapable of not scoring.
Torres, lest we forget, was one of Roman Abramovich’s follies. Not a player wanted by his manager, it seemed, just a player he wanted for himself. The fact that this transfer hasn’t worked out is surprising therefore, given that Abramovich’s previous folly was such a resounding success. Andriy Shevchenko, purchased at great expense from AC Milan in 2006, was a player who fitted seamlessly into José Mourinho’s Chelsea team, his time at Stamford Bridge proving to be exceedingly harmonious and fruitful.
Yes, so we’ve established that when Roman buys players he likes just because he likes them, it tends not to go well. So no surprise, in that respect, that the Torres move has been, thus far at least, a failure.
And yet, you still get the feeling that there’s more to come from Torres, that perhaps he’s not quite the busted flush some would suggest, that perhaps somewhere inside this timid, insecure shadow of his former self there lurks the goal-hungry monster of three or four years ago, waiting for the right manager to unlock his full potential and set the beast free.
Enter Rafael Benítez.
This is the man who brought Torres to Liverpool from Atlético Madrid five and a half years ago. This is the man who built a team in which Torres flourished, benefitting from the service provided by Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso and the confidence given to him by his manager. And this is the man to whom Chelsea have now turned after the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo.
On many levels, the appointment of Benítez as Chelsea manager seems a strange one. Abramovich is a man who has always been gripped by fantasy, and fantasy is not something Benítez’s teams readily provide. The Russian fell in love with the game in 2003, a high-scoring Champions League tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid stirring his desire to buy his own club and create similar nights of free-flowing adventure. He appears to have a vision of football both beautiful and beautifully naive.
Benítez has never been overly preoccupied with free-flowing football. His teams have functioned as well-drilled units, where the system is key and the emphasis is on the details, the things a good tactician like Benítez can predict, not the unpredictability of individual flair and brilliance. Just ask Yossi Benayoun, a clever and gifted footballer who was never properly trusted by Benítez, or even – in Benayoun’s view – treated fairly: “If I played well, I never felt he gave me credit. He tried to destroy my confidence. You can’t treat a player like this and expect him to be happy.”
And yet his teams have occasionally found room for individual brilliance, the most notable example of this being Fernando Torres. For a period of about three years after he came to Liverpool, Torres was simply unstoppable. 33 goals in his debut season, a further 17 in his second season and 22 in his third. He scored more goals in a debut season than any other foreign player in Premier League history. He was adept at scoring goals from every angle and position – long-range shots, tap-ins, thunderous headers, venomous volleys.
But then injuries halted him, along with the deterioration of his club’s fortunes, and confidence dribbled away. He arrived at Chelsea in January 2011 searching for form that he has never truly since found, despite a notable contribution to Spain’s defence of their European Championship title in the summer and a couple of important goals for Chelsea.
But “a couple of important goals” is considerably less than Chelsea expected of him when they paid Liverpool a British transfer record 50 million pounds for his services. It is considerably less than Abramovich expected, and in turning to Benítez, the hope must be that he can be the man to bring Torres back to life. He has been given a seven-month contract to do so. For Torres, time is fast running out.
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