x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rafa Benitez's task to turn back time on Fernando Torres

The new Chelsea manager knows how to gear a team to suit the Spaniard, says Richard Jolly, something that will satisfy the owner's insistence on persistence with the wayward striker.

Fernando Torrres has scored just 18 goals in 86 games for Chelsea during nearly three years with the West London club. Clive Rose / Getty Images
Fernando Torrres has scored just 18 goals in 86 games for Chelsea during nearly three years with the West London club. Clive Rose / Getty Images

Sir Alex Ferguson looked at Fernando Torres. He baulked at the asking price. The fee in question was not the British record £50 million (Dh294.4m) Chelsea paid in January 2010 but the rather cheaper, if still considerable £20m, Liverpool forked out for his services three-and-a-half years earlier.

It soon looked a bargain. Torres's debut campaign in England produced 33 goals, followed by the winner, for Spain, in Euro 2008.

He was voted the third best player in the world. He was catapulted into the bracket of the most valuable players on the planet. His high-profile admirers soon included one of football's richest men: Roman Abramovich.

But the quicksilver, razor-sharp striker he coveted was the player who graced Anfield, not the forward Ferguson opted not to buy and still less the one Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and finally Roberto di Matteo all dropped.

He never topped 21 goals in a season for Atletico Madrid. In almost three years at Stamford Bridge, he has scored 18 goals in 86 games. The man who was the new Ian Rush at Anfield has become the second Andriy Shevchenko for Chelsea, the world-beater turned wastrel, the expensive embarrassment, the cause of friction between owner and manager.

Hence, perhaps, the appointment of Rafa Benitez, the manager who made Torres the object of Abramovich's affection. His task is to invent time travel, to transport Torres back to 2007, to discover the pace that injuries appear to have burnt off and the confidence that was waylaid somewhere along the line, to remove the sulk and restore the smile.

"A nice man and very keen to learn," Benitez said on Wednesday, before his appointment was ratified, while admitting he had his doubts if his compatriot would ever return to his devastating best. After it, he turned the attention to Torres's teammates.

"If the striker's not scoring too many, the rest of the team have to maybe create more chances for him," he remarked. But as Benitez had initially admitted while unemployed, Chelsea's style of play is not ideally suited to Torres.

The trio of creators - Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar - may be kindred spirits, well equipped for the progressive brand of football Abramovich demands. Yet Benitez rendered Torres deadly by playing quick counter-attacking football, leaving the striker on the shoulder of the last defender and relying on the precise passing of Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, operating at the base of the midfield and in the striker's slipstream respectively.

Factor in Javier Mascherano's ball-winning ability, instigating rapid attacks, and Yossi Benayoun's capacity to slide passes into space and an entire Liverpool team was configured for Torres's liking.

Chelsea cannot do that. They have no deep-lying playmaker comparable with Alonso. They drag opposition defences nearer their own goal, reducing the space in behind the back four for Torres. The three flair players pass among themselves, rather than looking straight for the striker.

So it is a challenge for the ninth manager of the Abramovich era.

"Benitez knows how to get the best out of his players," wrote Torres in his autobiography El Nino which, as it is a 287-page love letter to Liverpool, does not tend to be read these days. "He pushes you so hard you end up playing at 120 per cent of your potential. Then he pushes you some more."

With a perfectionist's attention to detail, a mathematician's knowledge of the geometry of the pitch and an obsessive's interest in football and football alone, Benitez is, Torres said: "Absolutely dedicated to a difficult, demanding and often ungrateful profession."

Di Matteo can testify to Abramovich's ingratitude. Dropping Torres in Turin on Tuesday against Juventus was the final act of defiance of a manager who disliked having to select an out-of-form striker. It is why, much as the focus will be on the reception the Chelsea crowd afford Benitez, their treatment of Torres is also instructive.

Because the forward who cannot finish has already finished off a Champions League-winning manager.

 

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