x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Some big boots to fill

Fernando Torres and Robin van Persie have yet to supply their respective national sides with a steady stream of goals at this World Cup.

Robin van Persie, right, has scored just one goal in South Africa, against Cameroon in the group stage, with the Dutch already qualified.
Robin van Persie, right, has scored just one goal in South Africa, against Cameroon in the group stage, with the Dutch already qualified.

Responsibility for goals weighs heavy on Van Persie and Torres, writes Ian Hawkey Ruud van Nistelrooy called it "the law of the game". He added: "Of course I'd love to be there, involved in a World Cup final, but I shall be at home, watching and enjoying from my sofa." Thus will Holland's finest and most prolific centre-forward of the 21st century look at his countrymen tomorrow and doubtless wonder what might have been.

"I didn't have quite enough time to be ready for it," van Nistelrooy, 33, told the Spanish newspaper Marca, referring to his recovery from an injury sustained late last year, which he thinks eventually dissuaded Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach, from taking him to South Africa. Van Nistelrooy had played well and scored goals for Hamburg, his German club, in the spring, but Van Marwijk put his faith in others.

Spanish football's most trusted striker of the past dozen years, meanwhile, will also watch from his sofa, thinking bittersweet thoughts of his own end-of-season injury, but also knowing that fitness is not the principal reason he will not be at Soccer City. Raul, also 33, played his last game for Spain well before the last European championships; his influence waning, his knack for goals superseded by the emergence of younger finishers.

Spain and Holland both left their fabled, legendary strikers at home. But their younger replacement No 9s have have so far failed to fill those big boots in the six matches that have steered the World Cup finalists to the tournament's last collision. Spain's Fernando Torres has yet to score a goal in South Africa; Holland's Robin van Persie has just one. Both men, both 26, came into the tournament on the road back from serious injury, Torres having had surgery after sustaining knee-ligament damage with Liverpool, Van Persie similarly but even more seriously injured last autumn with Arsenal. The rigour of the Premier League inflicts these setbacks.

At the same time, Torres, who joined Liverpool from Atletico Madrid at 23, and Van Persie, who left Feyenoord for Arsenal at 20, are perceived to have raised their game by choosing to play at leading English clubs. But in a World Cup that has done little to enhance English football's claim to house the most elite domestic competition in the world, the displays by Torres and Van Persie beg a number of questions.

Questions such as: Has Torres, electric chasing the ball, become too shaped by counter-attacking football to be effective in Spain's more patient, elaborate playing style? Not according to his national team coach Vicente Del Bosque. "Fernando does a lot or work in his position beyond just scoring goals," Del Bosque said, "and he's an important player for us." Nonetheless, Del Bosque dropped his No 9 from the starting XI in the semi-final against Germany, moved David Villa, who has five goals in the tournament, from his post wide on the left to one more central, and picked a winger, Pedro, in place of Torres.

The big question now is whether Torres watches the beginning of the World Cup final from the bench. Van Persie will not feel quite so vulnerable. As a teenager he was regarded suspiciously by Van Marwijk, then in charge at Feyenoord, and the two men clashed over matters of discipline. Van Persie's maturity at Arsenal, his speed, intelligence and famously fierce shot marked him out as a natural successor both to Van Nistelrooy and even, for his neat touch and work outside the penalty area, to Dennis Bergkamp.

But he has been outscored here by Wesley Sneijder, who has five goals, and Arjen Robben - who has two - and in many ways outshone by the hard-working Dirk Kuyt, a former centre-forward who has redefined his game as a wide player mainly because he has Torres alongside him at Liverpool and Van Persie for Holland. Van Marwijk, though, will not tinker with his strike force. "Robin has really improved during the last few matches," the Holland coach told reporters. "I still have a lot of confidence in him. I see him showing his best again in the final."

Van Nistelrooy agreed: "Robin's a good lad. Things haven't gone so well, but he's got the ability to come through that." sports@thenational.ae