Torres’ return takes spotlight as Atletico prepares for Real showdown

Real Madrid have no time to dwell on their first competitive defeat since September as they now face a Copa del Rey showdown with bitter rivals Atletico Madrid (live, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET) — a match which will see Fernando Torres’ return to Rojiblancos colors.

Torres has returned to his boyhood club Atletico Madrid as an idol and was unveiled on Sunday in front of 45,000 jubilant fans. The local hero is back in fashion. Everybody, it seems, is happy. Now the Spanish striker just has to produce it where it matters most — on the pitch. Atletico believes he can.

Coach Diego Simeone played with Torres at Atletico toward the end of his career. They know each other well and, although Fernando — still El Nino in those days — was the club captain, now it’s El Cholo who is very much the leader at the Vicente Calderon.

"Tomorrow, Torres will start," Simeone, who pushed for the Spain international’s signing personally, told reporters on Tuesday. "His footballing qualities are what we need. He has fit in well. I’m happy with his arrival."

Torres will have to adjust quickly, too. Simeone pursued Torres in the summer as Atleti sought two strikers to replace David Villa and Diego Costa. Mario Mandzukic was brought in, but the Spanish champion was unable to fund a move for Torres and the Chelsea forward moved on loan to AC Milan instead. Question marks were raised as to why Simeone would want a player clearly past his prime and lacking in confidence, but the Atleti coach truly believes he can motivate Torres — even if his finest football is already behind him.

"Simeone hardly ever asks for anything, but he asked for Torres," Atletico president Enrique Cerezo said last week. "It wasn’t easy to bring him here, but with hard work and persistence we have achieved it. He was, is, and will be a great player. He has an important role to play."

Even with the public support, Torres will have to prove himself again. Mandzukic already has impressed for Atletico, scoring 14 goals in 22 appearances for the Rojiblancos, while winger Antoine Griezmann has excelled recently in an advanced role, netting a superb hat trick at Athletic Bilbao in December and adding two more in the 3-1 win over Levante on Saturday.


So where will Torres fit in? "Fernando doesn’t come here as a savior," Simeone said earlier this week. "He will have to work hard to compete with Griezmann, Mandzuckic and Raul Jimenez. He will give us depth."

Since the departure of Costa, Atleti’s attack has missed the physicality and clever runs of the Brazil-born forward, but Torres’ relative pace means he should be able to slot in seamlessly and give Simeone’s side an extra weapon on the break. Simeone believes Torres has the right characteristics to succeed at Atletico again, but a key factor for Torres’ second time around will be confidence — something severely lacking in recent seasons.

Since starring at Liverpool between 2007 and 2010, Torres has never really recovered that fantastic form. At Chelsea, he was not suited to the side’s style until a link-up with former coach Rafa Benitez brought a Europa League title and 22 goals from 64 games in 2011-12. Under Jose Mourinho, opportunities had been scarce. A similar situation may be likely at Atleti as well but Simeone knows Torres, which may just be the difference-maker over a long campaign.

Last season, Atletico won La Liga and reached the final of the UEFA Champions League, but Simeone’s side was dead on its feet in that final fixture. Torres provides strengh in depth, will slot in to the team’s counter-attacking philosophy and can still be a threat with his ability to run from deep. It is, realistically, the last chance for Torres to prove himself at an elite club.

"I’m delighted to be back," Torres said. "It’s so special to return home. I needed something to excite me and I knew I could only get that here."

Meanwhile down the road, Real Madrid had won 22 out of 22 official matches since suffering their last loss — which coincidentally came against Atletico in the league on Sept. 13 — but that run came to an end on Sunday night when they were beaten 2-1 at Valencia. That left Real two wins short of matching the world record of 24 consecutive victories set by Brazilian side Coritiba, and came five days after Carlo Ancelotti’s side had lost 4-2 to AC Milan in a friendly.

It has been a disappointing week for the European champions, but they need to refocus quickly with a tough trip to the Vicente Calderon coming up on Wednesday night in the first leg of the Copa del Rey Round of 16. Real defender Marcelo is confident the Mestalla loss will not create any lasting hangover, though, saying: "I don’t think that this defeat will affect the team going into Wednesday. That’s another match and we’ll be all out to win it. We’re going to give our all to win, just like in every game."

His teammate Pepe added: "We have to switch focus, we need to prepare well for the game because it’s going to be difficult, an important duel. We want to make our fans happy."

Portugal defender Pepe could come face-to-face with Torres in that match at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday. And with the help of Simeone, Atletico hopes Torres can recover the sensations of old.

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