Atletico loyalists must show patience for Torres' to make contributions

BY Ian Hawkey • January 7, 2015

MADRID --  

Fernando Torres knew he was guaranteed a cheer at the beginning of Wednesday's Copa del Rey Round of 16 match against Real Madrid.

The returning Atletico fan, former player and now designated lucky charm would hear plenty of applause around the Vicente Calderon when he ended his participation in his comeback game, too. Atletico had just taken a 1-0 lead in the tie, so the arena still rocked when he was substituted. That sounded good to Torres, even if his first 58 minutes in an Atletico jersey for seven-and-half years merited respect rather than a round of up-on-your-feet, ecstatic 'Olés.'

"If he wasn't strong enough, I wouldn't put him on," said Atletico coach Diego Simeone 24 hours before kickoff, signalling that Torres, the 30-year-old former Atletico captain -- signed back by his childhood employers after a four year period when his loss of verve and goal-scoring knack has been a puzzle for first Chelsea and most recently AC Milan -- would be making a resonant return in the capital-city derby. If Torres wasn't up to it, Simeone barely needed repeating, he, the coach, wouldn't have taken up the loan deal offered by to Atletico by a Milan unimpressed by Torres.

Atletico are the Spanish champions and they don't do sentimental signings. They recruit men to help them retain their La Liga crown and to make them better than runners-up in the European Champions League, as they were last May.

There is huge enthusiasm for Torres at the Calderon. More than 40,000 fans turned up simply to see him confirm he had come back, to parade his number 19 shirt at the stadium last Sunday. They welcomed not the phantom who in six months at Milan scored a single goal, nor the ghost Chelsea allowed to leave for a tiny fraction of the $75 million they had paid Liverpool in Jan. 2011. They ushered in the hero they remember from when he was in his early 20s.

Belief in Torres's capacity to recover the blitz of speed, the cold-blooded finish that made him the carrier of Atletico's hopes from his teens, and the spearhead of an ambitious Liverpool for three and half years from 2007 has evaporated in most places except the Vicente Calderon. Fine coaches like Jose Mourinho, who let him leave Chelsea, and Vicente del Bosque, the World Cup winning-head coach of Spain whose great loyalty to the center-forward has been tested again and again, lost faith. Milan manager Pippo Inzaghi, young to the job, and a deadly striker himself until only recently, gave up on him, too.

So what does Simeone see? A former colleague, which is significant. The teenaged Torres who emerged from Atletico's youth team in the 1990s impressed Simeone when the current Atletico coach was a gnarled, ageing warrior in Atletico's midfield. They shared the agonies of representing a struggling Atletico. Torres was only 19 when he was captaining them, their totem when they were in the second division of La Liga.

Those hard times shaped Torres. But carrying a middle-ranking team made him yearn to test himself in an elite squad. Hence his move to Liverpool, of the Barclays Premier League, and the later desire to chase titles with Chelsea. There's an irony here. Atletico grew after his departure, found other brilliant goalscorers in his absence -- Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa -- and won the sort of medals -- Europa Leagues, then La Liga -- that seemed impossible in the years when Torres was known there as El Nino, the prodigy.

On Wednesday, the Torres of old wanted to wind back the years, stir the nostalgia. He wanted to lurk off the shoulder of Real Madrid defenders and streak clear, like he used to as El Nino. Mostly, that idea led him to be flagged offside. He wanted to show he buys into Simeone's culture of aggression. In the first 15 minutes, he had committed fouls on Sergio Ramos, his Spain colleague, and Raphael Varane.

His goal chances? None. But Simeone, and the loyalists of the Calderon, will show patience. Torres, who has conspicuously lost some of his teenage pace, will not outsprint his younger teammate Antoine Griezmann, the flier in Simeone's first-choice forward line; he will not head in crosses with the authority of Mario Mandzukic, Atletico's principal target man. But he will fit into the corporate, musketeer spirit of the Spanish champions, and provide an alternative to Griezmann and Mandzukic from the substitutes' bench, or for midweek games, like Wednesday's, in a crowded fixture schedule when the first-picks are tired.

And he will enjoy being part of a side which trusts itself, knows its fortes and has the confidence of having shaken up the hierarchy, not just of the city of Madrid, not just of Spanish soccer, but of the UEFA Champions League. He will look forward to Atletico's next match, on Sunday, at Barcelona, an opponent Torres used to terrorize with his effectiveness on the counter-attack.

In those days, Atletico tended to shock Barcelona while always failing against Real Madrid. No longer. Their 2-0 win Wednesday was their third triumph against their neighbors already this season. Torres enjoyed what he would recognize as a typical Simeone win, gained by two set-piece goals, the first a Raul Garcia penalty, the second a Jose Maria Gimenez header from a cross. Torres' glee on the touchline as the second went in was palpable.

''It feels good, as it always does when you beat a rival,'' Torres said after Atletico's first leg victory over Real Madrid on Tuesday night. ''I'm happy for many things, for my return, for the team's victory, and for the great atmosphere in the stands.''

His next challenge is to make meaningful contributions to the Atletico juggernaut.


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