Philipp Lahm ready for Fernando Torres in Champions League final
Philipp Lahm always reckoned he had the beating of Fernando Torres for speed.
He still thinks so. After all, he maintains, he showed he could be as quick a sprinter, for all Torres's longer stride, in the final of Euro 2008 in Vienna.
The decisive moment of that game, an era-defining Torres goal, was not down to Lahm being outpaced, Lahm says, but to other factors.
Nearly four years after the last European championship final between Spain and Germany, Bayern Munich's Lahm can still recollect his fateful duel with Chelsea's Torres with great clarity, something that provides a fascinating subplot to tomorrow's Champions League final.
"It started off with a free kick to Spain, in their own half," Lahm said, "and while we were sorting ourselves out, they did exactly what we had wanted to prevent. They played a simple pass into the centre circle, and Marcos Senna, who was under no pressure, played the ball on to Xavi."
From his position at left-back, Lahm readied himself for what Spain's metronomic pass-master, Xavi, would do next. Torres was preparing a run; Lahm already felt annoyed that Spain had encountered so little resistance up to that point.
"Our shielding midfielders did not confront Xavi," Lahm said, "and so Xavi played the ball between Christoph Metzelder and me. I was still in front of Torres and he is not faster than me, but then I saw Jens Lehmann coming out of his goal and intuitively held back for a split second."
The predator in Torres had been aroused. He sensed an advantage in the duel and seized it. The Spaniard leaned into Lahm; the German momentarily lost balance.
"Suddenly Torres had got in front of me, got the ball ahead of Jens and chipped it over him," said Lahm, who then watched the ball continue its precise, almost gentle course on to the inside of the far post and over the goal line. One-nil to Spain.
The strike would be probably the most important in the history of Spain's national team.
It delivered the European championship to a country that had been without a major senior international prize for 44 years.
What Torres set in motion, when he slipped past Lahm and chipped over Lehmann, was a juggernaut. Two years later Spain won the World Cup, their first.
But the key figures in that duel have travelled very distinct individual paths since that 32nd minute in Vienna.
Torres was 24 then, had just completed his first, impressive season in English football. He had scored 24 goals in 33 league games for Liverpool.
The boy who had been known as El Nino, the kid, at Atletico Madrid had matured superbly in the Premier League. He had become an idol on Liverpool's Kop. Now he was a national hero for Spain.
Lahm's error in the final – or, by his detailed account, his small part in a series of errors by German players, including Lehmann and the midfield in the lead up to the Torres goal – hardly tarnished his reputation as one of the game's best full-backs, admired for his attacking instincts and two-footed versatility.
Barcelona were interested in signing Lahm after Euro 2008, but he stayed with Bayern.
There he would become an increasingly confident leader of the dressing room. He was demanding of his coaches, and would soon take the view that one of them, Jurgen Klinsmann, fell short of the standards Bayern should be setting.
Later Lahm would mistrust Louis Van Gaal, who followed Klinsmann into the club, because of Van Gaal's reckless leanings towards attacking football.
Lahm is opinionated, feisty. Torres has strong views, too, and, gradually, in two further seasons with Liverpool after winning the European championship with Spain, he began to believe Anfield might not, after all, be the place where he could fulfil his ambitions, answer his desire to achieve at club level what he had achieved internationally.
Torres would never be as prolific again in the Premier League as he had been in his first English campaign, although injuries also disrupted his progress.
And by the time Spain were at the their next major tournament, he was no longer secure of his place in the first XI.
When he next came up against Lahm, as Germany took on Spain in the semi-final, it was only for nine minutes, as a late replacement for David Villa. Torres also started the World Cup final on the substitutes' bench.
By then Lahm was captain of Germany, and of Bayern. The first armband came to him with Michael Ballack's unfortunate injury; criticism then swirled around Lahm when, ambitiously, he said he wanted to keep the status of captain even if Ballack returned to the squad.
That never happened, and Lahm is now a forceful national captain, opining not just on team matters but topics such as human rights abuses in Ukraine, where Euro 2012 will be jointly hosted next month.
As for Torres, he will simply be very relieved if he spends any time on the pitches of Poland or Ukraine in June. His status with Spain has fallen drastically because of his horribly patchy club form since Chelsea, by paying Liverpool a soaring £50 million (Dh292m) for him 16 months ago, made him the most expensive player ever to move between two British clubs.
Seldom, these days, does the former star Torres show the sort of confidence that let him slip past the now-developed superstar, Lahm, on that night in Vienna.
Seldom does Lahm make errors. But he will still be vigilant, just in case, of giving Torres even a split-second of advantage should a famous duel be repeated tomorrow.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE