x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Bittersweet sympathy for Chelsea

Chelsea deserve genuine sympathy. Just look at them. They're cursed with an owner who could be conceived nowhere else other than, perhaps, as the head of the cricket boards of Sri Lanka or Pakistan.

Chelsea's Fernando Torres has found his form.
Chelsea's Fernando Torres has found his form.

Difficult as it is to place Chelsea as the underdog in any endeavour, it became easier to do it last week when Barcelona were the opponents. This isn't just because Barcelona are becoming a stadium rock band, football's U2 or Coldplay: universally loved, even critically acclaimed (for now) but with the building undercurrent of resentment generally reserved for champions of the mainstream.

It is also because Chelsea deserve genuine sympathy. Just look at them. They're cursed with an owner who could be conceived nowhere else other than, perhaps, as the head of the cricket boards of Sri Lanka or Pakistan, or in charge of appointing post-war Italian governments. Yet in spite of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea thrive. Sure, his money helps, but that is almost entirely, and routinely, cancelled by his judgement and patience.

In the process, Chelsea have become more human, less the machines Jose Mourinho had turned them into. The end of the sense of "winning trophies by rote" helps. Even Didier Drogba now feels more like Arnold Schwarzenegger's second Terminator, rather than the first, nastier incarnation.

Their latest post-managerial sacking surge has carried a dilettante charm. Written off for having too old a spine, and simultaneously one too powerful, they could still end this season with two trophies. It would be a rakish triumph.

But the centrifugal sympathising force, for this writer at least, has been the labours of Fernando Torres. No introduction of Torres since his move to Chelsea last year has been free of the accompanying indictment of his price tag, as if he first robbed the public of £50 million (Dh298m) then gave it to Chelsea to have himself bought.

It has been a dark 15 months for Torres, the worst stretch coming between last October and March this year, when he went without a goal for nearly 26 on-field hours. At time he looked so lost as to become invisible, apparent only in a blur of heavy first touches, runs of hope rather than knowing, and finishing so painfully unsure you wished chances wouldn't fall to him.

It got so bad that serious discussion arose on whether he had, at 27, any future. The Guardian pondered, delicately and respectfully, whether he was completely finished as a player. Others were louder, less careful.

But the one truth of punditry, as everyone knows, is that it gets things wrong far more than it does right.

So, from almost precisely the moment that talk about Torres was at its most acidic, he began scoring goals again. He's got seven across three competitions since March. (Out of sympathy - and awe - a fiendishly difficult volley which hit the post against Wigan recently should be added to the tally.)

The goals, and more involved performances, don't necessarily say he's back. Even now it doesn't always look like his game clicks with Chelsea's. Like David Bowie and Mick Jagger, the pairing looked a better fit on paper than in actuality. And the sureness of his finishing is not yet what it was; if Filippo Inzaghi was born offside, then Torres was born on the end of a through ball. But the goals say he definitely hasn't gone yet.

Maybe what he has endured is simply the reverse of the one-season wonder, where one very, very bad spell sits within a pretty impressive career. It has been a long dry period, but it has been only one year among many good ones, and probably a fair few still to come.

In any case, the perils of punditry are clear. Nearly six years ago, after a flaky dismissal in the Multan Test against England, I wrote that Yousuf Youhana's place (as Mohammad Yousuf was then known) in the middle order should come into serious question. That was his 60th Test and he was averaging around 48, my argument that he did so with more style, less substance; that innings was a case in point, a 13-ball 16, all boundaries, precisely what Pakistan didn't need in trying to save the Test.

In his next 13 Tests till the end of 2006, he scored over 2,000 runs with 10 hundreds, in the process breaking Viv Richards's record for most Test runs in a calendar year and establishing himself firmly as one of Pakistan's all-time greats. With grace and elegance, he shovelled those words back into my mouth. It isn't difficult to imagine a similar response from Torres, even if it means having to like Chelsea.


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