x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bargain Demba Ba could spell the end for Fernando Torres at Chelsea

The new forward at Stamford Bridge has made an immediate impact, which could be felt most by the Spanish striker, writes Richard Jolly.

Demba Ba scored twice on his debut as Chelsea beat Southampton 5-1 in the FA Cup third round. The Senegal striker moved from Newcastle United to the London club last week. Julian Finney / Getty Images
Demba Ba scored twice on his debut as Chelsea beat Southampton 5-1 in the FA Cup third round. The Senegal striker moved from Newcastle United to the London club last week. Julian Finney / Getty Images

It can seem a fact of footballing life that goalscorers often command the highest prices. It has been a reality of the global game that, for the past decade, Chelsea have invariably fielded one of the world's most expensive teams.

Now, however, observers could be forgiven for thinking goals have been devalued at Stamford Bridge, and not merely because Rafa Benitez's team have struck 21 times in their last six games. Frank Lampard, scorer of 193 in Chelsea blue, will be released in the summer. Demba Ba, the prolific addition to the forward line, cost a mere £7.5 million (Dh44.6m) and scored twice on his debut at Southampton on Saturday.

As Roman Abramovich's reign has included six striking signings who were priced at more than £15m and two with a combined cost of £80m, Ba looks all the more of a bargain.

Only Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez have more Premier League goals this season and, while a chronic knee problem and a clause in his Newcastle United contract has kept his fee down, Chelsea are threatening to provide their billionaire owner with value for money.

Actually, the Senegalese, like some of Chelsea's cheaper buys before him, has the hallmarks of a stopgap signing, tying them over until Abramovich's preferred targets become available. If the evidence points to a summer move for Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao or Napoli's Edinson Cavani, Ba has been brought in to make an immediate impact.

A fine finisher may end Fernando Torres's reign as a first choice, perhaps even his Chelsea career.

A comparison of the statistics is damning for the £50m man. Torres has only scored one more league goal in his two years at Stamford Bridge than Ba did this season in a struggling Newcastle side.

The Spaniard took 14 games and 732 minutes to open his Chelsea account. The Senegalese had a brace in little over an hour.

Yet if the numbers have been used to trace Torres's decline since he scintillated for Liverpool, other factors point to Ba being Chelsea's superior option.

The newcomer is better in the air and quicker; now Torres cannot stretch defences with his pace, there is a greater chance of Ba running in behind opponents. The sense, too, is that he is hungrier for goals. Perhaps it is because, as a late developer whose career is likely to be curtailed by injury, he has to make the most of limited opportunities.

And he is guaranteed a chance at Chelsea. Benitez's shared history with Torres is one explanation of his appointment but it will not have escaped the meticulous manager's attention that his compatriot started 31 of the club's first 33 games this season.

Benitez's belief in squad rotation is both quasi-religious and scientific and Ba's eligibility for the Capital One Cup points to him beginning at least one leg of the semi-final against Swansea City, which starts tomorrow.

After the 5-1 demolition of Southampton, Benitez said both centre-forwards have a role to play. Ba stated his willingness to play alongside Torres. It was the diplomatic answer but an irrelevant one and not merely because the majority of Benitez's teams have had a lone out-and-out attacker.

Chelsea have recruited an army of attacking midfielders and wingers. Oscar is already spending plenty of time on the bench. Picking both forwards would involve omitting another.

Moreover, the most expensive signing in the history of English football is stylistically and temperamentally unsuited to playing with a strike partner. Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo had tried pairing and alternating Torres with Didier Drogba but the Spaniard, like many a cowering central defender, appeared intimidated by the Ivorian's presence.

If the hope was that he would be liberated by Drogba's departure, the subsequent few months suggest Torres's problems are only partly psychological. While Chelsea have tried to tailor their tactics to suit him, the reality is that the Spaniard around whom the team should be built is Juan Mata. Yet while Daniel Sturridge was Torres's underused and, at times, injured understudy, his was the first name on the teamsheet by default, rather than on merit.

No longer. A sharper, stronger striker, Ba represents genuine competition. Abramovich and Benitez have been Torres's two great champions but one has a history of ruthlessness and the other is reluctant to let sentiment cloud his judgments.

In any case, Benitez's priority, besides winning games, has to be to cement his position, not to protect Torres. Right now, Ba represents the best chance of that.

It is why, in a month of significant fixtures with Swansea, Stoke City and Arsenal, Benitez's teamsheet will be scrutinised with more interest than usual.

Because if the manager who transformed Torres from promising to potent, from a talent to the man voted the world's third finest footballer, concludes that he is ranks second among Chelsea's strikers now, it is a judgment that might bring down the curtain on his time at Stamford Bridge.

It would result in a loss of face, to accompany the millions Abramovich would have to write off. Ba may be the cheap option but, as ever where Chelsea are concerned, enormous amounts of money form part of the context.


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