SPORTS

Torres finding his feet at Chelsea

After his much-publicized goal drought, “El Niño” waits on finals call-up

Fernando Torres in action for Chelsea against Blackburn in the final match of the Premier League season.
Fernando Torres in action for Chelsea against Blackburn in the final match of the Premier League season. MIGUEL MEDINA (AFP)

"I am starting to enjoy myself instead of suffering." Timidly, Fernando Torres announces the end of his personal nightmare, these four months between November and February, hounded mercilessly by the British press after a goal drought lasting for 24 games.

It was a spectacular fall from grace for the former golden child of Atlético, who moved to Liverpool and was idolized from day one. Chelsea's "El Niño" is not the same; he has endured a torrid time at the West London club, scoring just once in the Premier League in his first half-season and managing a meager six this term — three of them in a single afternoon against QPR.

But goals do not tell the full story. Torres has scored six in all competitions in the last two months compared to four in the six months previously but has also provided double that total in assists. His belated return to something approaching top form has entered the thoughts of Chelsea coach Roberto di Matteo ahead of Saturday's Champions League final against Bayern Munich. In the final Premier League match of the season against Blackburn Rovers, the Italian tactician paired Didier Drogba with Torres in the second half, the first time he had done so since taking charge at the club in March after the disastrous reign of André Villas-Boas. It offers a clue as to his plans to tackle Bayern at its home, the Allianz Arena in Munich.

Di Matteo has made a strong case for his continued employment at Stamford Bridge, winning the FA Cup and guiding the team past Barcelona to the Champions League final. If he delivers the Holy Grail that Chelsea's patron, Roman Abramovich, lusts after the most, it will be difficult to deny him a permanent post. If he wins it in style, as Abramovich demands, so much the better. Di Matteo needs to demonstrate he can be aggressive against Bayern after the rearguard action performed against Barça. But the statistics are not encouraging; in 19 games played together, neither Torres nor Drogba has found the net.

He was the star, an icon. I’m not sure they see him like that at Chelsea"

Nobody has explained exactly what happened to Torres after he signed for Chelsea in January, 2011 better than his international teammate Pepe Reina: "The difference between Fernando and me is that I have always had the confidence of the people at the club. It's easier to recover from mistakes when your teammates and coaches believe in you. With Villas-Boas, I don't think that confidence was there."

Liverpool paid Atlético 36 million euros for Torres in 2007 but El Niño always exceeded expectations at Anfield. "We built a team for Fernando at Liverpool," says Reina. "Together with Steve [Gerrard] he was the star, an icon. I'm not sure they see him like that at Chelsea. Fernando has always played his best when he feels that he is the heart of the team."

Evidence of Torres' malaise at Chelsea was televised to the world on March 8 during a game against Birmingham. Juan Mata, who has not had the same trouble adapting to Chelsea's set-up, offered Torres the ball when a penalty was awarded. Torres refused, lending more ammunition to the media crusade. But the Stamford Bridge fanbase has always supported the Spanish striker.

Now it remains to be seen if Vicente del Bosque will recall Torres for the European Championships, the competition that catapulted him to stardom in Vienna in 2008 when he slipped behind the German defense and deftly chipped over the advancing Jens Lehmann to hand Spain its first major trophy since 1964.

In the Champions League semifinal at Camp Nou Torres scored a similar goal, rounding Víctor Valdés after streaking into the Barcelona half and stroking home. It may be too early to tell if El Niño is back, but he will surely get a chance to prove himself in Munich. It will also be his last opportunity to impress Del Bosque.

Rules
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS