x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Chelsea have been toppled by Fernando Torres

Seen as the man to turn their season around, the £50 million striker has only succeeded in upsetting the balance at Stamford Bridge.

Fernando Torres, left, is yet to score for Chelsea and forced his manager to change the team's formation on three occasions in an effort to accommodate the striker.
Fernando Torres, left, is yet to score for Chelsea and forced his manager to change the team's formation on three occasions in an effort to accommodate the striker.

The text message pinged joyously around players' friends and family. Roman Abramovich spending again, Fernando Torres helicoptered into Cobham to become the Premier League's most expensive footballer, a miserable, fractious season about-turned towards hope.

"We are back," the SMS read. "Chelsea are back."

Ten weeks later and they are back against the wall, their Premier League trophy already en route to Manchester and the FA Cup long since lost in a fourth-round penalty shoot-out at Stamford Bridge. The only way of avoiding another bitter Champions League exit is to become the first visitors to win at Old Trafford all season.

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Worse still, they travel to Manchester United on Tuesday hamstrung by the £50 million (Dh301m) signing that brought such expectation. Torres's nine outings in Chelsea blue have been so poor even Carlo Ancelotti has tired of praising his movement, conceding that "this is not a good moment for Fernando".

Ahead of yesterday's meeting with Wigan Athletic, the striker had yet to score for his new club. In the league he had forced just a single save from an opposition goalkeeper, while Ancelotti's oft-stated theory that the Spaniard was working well for his teammates jarred with their failure to find the net the last four times he had shared the pitch. Chelsea had scored a sum total of seven goals in Torres's 10.5 hours playing for them.

There are question marks over Torres's recovery from a knee operation that brutalised his World Cup and the ripped hamstring that ended it.

"He was not 100 per cent when he arrived," Ancelotti said. "He'd had a problem last year, but the big problem was in the summer when he had a tear on his hamstring. But in the last few months, he has improved."

A greater problem has been Torres's inability to integrate into new surroundings. His failure to mesh with Didier Drogba is captured in a paltry total of five completed passes to the Ivorian in almost five hours playing together. In Wednesday's first-leg loss, his sole pass to Drogba came at the second-half restart.

Ancelotti's attempts to accommodate Torres tactically have caused collateral damage. Having gone through three unsuccessful variations of shape, the Italian settled on a conventional 4-4-2 he once swore he would never use more to ride the confidence of a positive run of results than of any obvious fluidity of performance.

Against United, its shortcomings were clear. Accustomed to operating in a central three, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were caught between shielding defenders or supporting a pallid attack. Wayne Rooney happily sprinted from the empty space to claim the critical goal. The intelligent energy of Ramires was wasted on the right wing.

"We got a bit outnumbered at times in midfield," Lampard said, pointedly. "Rooney was coming off and getting on the ball and we couldn't control the game because we didn't have the bodies to get on the ball in midfield. We let them go one up. It wasn't our best, basically."

As both Lampard and United left-back Patrice Evra noted, Chelsea almost recovered the deficit by reverting to the 4-1-2-3 shape that was a trophy-winning standard, pre-Torres. It offers Ancelotti an obvious option for the return leg: Reunite Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka, the three friends best-versed in playing that way, and bank on a repeat of former successes.

Though Ancelotti has said he will consider dropping Torres, his choice is not as simple as his phrasing of it. "This is my job. I have to choose the players, not comparing the players with what money the club paid for them," he said.

The money he pays for players is fundamental to Abramovich, who underwrote the extravagant acquisition of Torres in the belief that he was buying the Champions League. As with the £30m purchase of Andriy Shevchenko five years previously, the Russian is likely to first blame substandard performances on the coach picking the team around him, then the players lined up beside him.

It is thought that Abramovich has long since been preparing a change of manager, casting his eyes around Europe for an individual who meets a demanding specification of uncomplaining compliance to his desires with an ability to win both Premier and Champions leagues, with certain players having been canvassed on potential replacements.

At the same time, the purchase of Torres appears to be evidence of Abramovich's plans to rebuild his team around the striker in a manner that threatens the end for a group of individuals who have been central to Chelsea's most successful era.

Malouda, Lampard, Drogba, Essien and John Obi Mikel have all been mentioned as players who may not be retained. Several are unhappy enough with the recent direction of the club that they may seek their own exit if the season ends poorly and they do not detect improvement.

With Abramovich taking a hands-on role in restructuring Chelsea almost every department of the club is under review. Frank Arnesen was pushed into resigning his position as sporting director and could be replaced by Guus Hiddink if the Dutchman, caretaker manager for four months in 2009, is relieved of his duties with Turkey. Arnesen's scouting department will be overhauled; the chief scout Lee Congerton is on paid leave and candidates are being interviewed to replace him.

An academy that has had more than £60m invested in it without delivering a regular first-team player is worried about its own status.

While Michael Emenalo's star continues to rise following his forced appointment as assistant first-team coach in place of Ray Wilkins, the performance director Mike Forde has lost influence. The error which the club secretary Dave Barnard made in failing to inform Ancelotti of David Luiz's ineligibility for an FA Cup loss has been noted, as have the fitness coach Glenn Driscoll's disagreements with Ancelotti over training. Even Chelsea's seemingly untouchable medical department could be changed.

Though Chelsea are sensitive to discussion of her status, Abramovich's personal assistant, Marina Granovskaia, has become an important conduit for football business. A regular presence at the club training ground, Granovskaia worked on the transfers of Torres and David Luiz and many expect her to be involved in further changes.

While that will require significant new spending on players and staff, Chelsea are confident of meeting Uefa's Financial Fair Play regulations, arguing that last year's £70.9m loss will be reduced by increased commercial revenue, wage-bill control, and other, as yet unspecified, measures.

Amidst it all, Old Trafford feels like a last chance for many at Chelsea. Its importance will not be missed.

Of the pressure, Lampard says: "We're aware."

He added: "We're not stupid. We know we've been very close. But every year - it's a cliche - but you've got to take it as it comes. No matter how much history, no matter how much bad luck you feel you've had, no matter how close you've been - it gets spoken about and it compounds it - but in the dressing room we just take it as it comes and attack it as best we can."

 

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