x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A tale of two Spanish strikers

Thankfully for Spain, Fernando Torres's bad luck has been balanced by David Villa's stellar performances.

Spain strikers Fernando Torres, left, and  David Villa have had opposite results since arriving in South Africa.
Spain strikers Fernando Torres, left, and David Villa have had opposite results since arriving in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG // According to Basque mythology, Samson, a Herculean figure who created mountains by kicking giant rocks with his feet, lost his strength when his long, flowing hair was cut short. In a modern-day adaptation, Fernando Torres, the Spanish striker who shed his blond locks before the start of the World Cup last month, appears to have, like Samson, lost his greatest asset.

The jet-heeled 26-year-old has been decisive for club and country in recent seasons, scoring 56 times in 79 games for Liverpool and scoring the only goal in the final of La Roja's European Championships encounter with Germany in 2008. Yet, since arriving in South Africa where Spain are hoping to leave with the first World Cup in their history, Torres has been less than prolific in front of goal. The result is the former Atletico Madrid forward has yet to complete 90 minutes, while popular opinion in his homeland is pushing Vincente del Bosque, the Spanish coach, to ponder starting burly Basque striker Fernando Llorente in his place tonight against Paraguay in Spain's quarter-final tie at Ellis Park.

Torres is returning from a serious knee injury that required him to undergo two operations in five months, and he only returned to full training two weeks before the World Cup was due to get under way. However, worryingly for Del Bosque, it is not the Spaniard's lack of fitness that is the root of the problem; it is his uncharacteristic clumsiness when a scoring opportunity arrives. He is getting into the positions, but failing to finish.

Fortunately for La Roja, Torres's newfound impotence in attack can be directly juxtaposed with that of David Villa, his strike partner. The 28 year-old has already scored four times and could have had hat-tricks against both Chile and Portugal were it not for a lapse in concentration from the penalty spot against the South Americans and a splendid performance from Eduardo, the Portuguese goalkeeper, in their last 16 tie earlier this week.

As has so often been the case in recent years, Barcelona are already one step ahead of their continental rivals, having signed Villa from Valencia before the tournament began for ?40 million (Dh180m). And the striker - who has 42 goals in 62 games for his national side - is helping to prove the Catalan club is as astute in the transfer market as their players are creating chances from midfield. Of course, Torres's impact cannot solely be summarised by the number of times he appears on the scoresheet. His presence alone gives defenders reason to worry and allows Villa space he would likely not be afforded were he deployed as either a lone striker or paired with the physical, but nowhere near as pacy, Llorente.

Yet it was Llorente - whose full name is, coincidentally, Fernando Llorente Torres - who changed the game against Portugal. He provided a superior aerial threat and excellent hold-up skills when he was introduced in the 59th minute. Villa scored five minutes later to secure Spain's safe progress, become the first Spaniard to score in three successive World Cup games and put him joint top - alongside Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina and Slovakia's Robert Vittek - in the chase for the Golden Boot.

Llorente, who said teammates compare him to the Hulk because of his size, may represent a Herculean figure more than Torres, yet Del Bosque is likely to start the latter tonight. "He's a player who, even though he hasn't scored goals, benefits us as someone who makes it hard for opposing defences," the coach said. "[He] is always a threat to the other team and he's a very dangerous player." gmeenaghan@thenational.ae