It was the ultimate study in deadpan celebration: Fernando Torres, clutching his Champions League medal after Chelsea’s final against Bayern in Munich, knowing the centre-forward who had won it was not him but Didier Drogba.
The equalizer, a stunning header towards the end of normal time in last season’s climax, had come from Drogba. So had a crucial penalty in the shoot-out. Torres had done little more than come on as a substitute.
Forwards like to be the swashbuckling hero, not the bit-part player Torres had become since leaving Liverpool. And it must have given Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, some indigestion as well: the Blues had paid $75 million for Torres, a British record price. Yet the Spaniard was continually overlooked in favor of Drogba.
Today, things are very different indeed. Drogba is gone, lured by the fresh challenge of China, Torres has a starter’s place at last and he is making full use of it, finally.
Saturday, Torres’ magnificent goal, prodded with the outside of his right boot, crowned a superb display against Newcastle United as Chelsea made it a maximum nine points from three games.
Torres is used to being the centre of attention. He grew up that way, beginning as the precocious star of Atletico Madrid, and had the status of an idol at Liverpool. With Spain he has won two European titles and a World Cup. But during his most recent campaign with the national side, in Poland and Ukraine this summer, he was not an automatic choice and Chelsea fans must have wondered of Vicente del Bosque shared the view that the cutting edge that had made him a world-beater might have been dulled by a vicious circle of injury and loss of confidence.
Now, however, his renaissance seems all but complete, to the delight of not just Torres but Roberto di Matteo, whom Abramovich promoted to head coach in February after it became apparent that Andre Villas-Boas’s first season would have to be his last. Di Matteo, in accordance with the owner’s wishes, has refashioned the team in a more technical style, with Eden Hazard, the most exciting of the new wave of Belgians, joining Torres’s compatriot Juan Mata in the creative department. But Chelsea still need a spearhead – and Torres is showing every sign of being able to carry on where Drogba left off.
It will nonetheless be a long, long season for Chelsea, as is the case for all Champions League holders. To be six points ahead of Manchester United and five ahead of Manchester City is all very well, but Chelsea have been obliged to play one game more – it was a 4-2 home victory over Reading last midweek – because of a schedule burdened (if that is the word) by the necessities to compete for the European Super Cup in Monaco next Friday and FIFA’s Club World Championship in Japan in December.
Have Chelsea a strong enough squad, even with $100 million of summer reinforcements, to cope? Have they adequate back-up for Torres in the young Englishman Daniel Sturridge? Let’s hope so, for in the trio of performances thus far they have looked very attractive contenders indeed. More convincing at this early stage, certainly, than either of the Manchester clubs.
Speaking of them, United clung on for victory by 3-2 over Fulham despite Robin van Persie’s home-debut goal and may lack Wayne Rooney for at least a month after he badly gashed a leg. City required a gift to take a point Sunday at Liverpool, where the home side were the more impressive, especially in a first half that swept away any anxieties that may have arisen during the 3-0 defeat at West Brom where new coach Brendan Rodgers took his bow.
Highlights included a perceptive "round-the-corner" pass from Joe Allen, the little midfielder Rodgers had brought with him from Swansea during the summer break — it was collected by Luis Suarez, whose tendency to shoot off target was maintained — and some excellent wing play from Raheem Sterling, the 17-year-old whom the coach had given a first League start after an outstanding display in Thursday’s otherwise unexciting Europa League victory over Hearts in Scotland.
Sterling was born in Jamaica but brought up in London by his mother. Liverpool plucked him from Queens Park Rangers’ academy for an initial fee of $1 million that could reach $10 million if he keeps progressing — and that would make him a very astute buy indeed on the evidence of this display against City’s excellent right-back, Pablo Zabaleta. A fine cross from Sterling offered striker Fabio Borini a chance to open the scoring before Martin Skrtel rammed home a header from a corner.
Unfortunately this was not Skrtel’s final contribution. But he was not alone in erring later. First keeper Pepe Reina flapped at a cross ball and Yaya Toure equalized. Then, after Suarez had magnificently atoned for his miss by steering the craftiest of free-kicks round the defensive wall and beyond Joe Hart, Skrtel played a blind pass back towards Reina, who was stranded as Carlos Tevez, neatly sidestepping, rolled the ball into the net.
Once again the evidence was that Liverpool need most urgent attention in defense. But, while Torres continues to exhibit such form at Stamford Bridge, there will always be the odd wistful sigh around Anfield about the attacker they let go.