Problem solved Fine-tuned Torres is purring for Di Matteo
21:30 GMT, 28 March 2012
Beyond a courageous team selection that enabled Chelsea to secure an important Champions League victory on Tuesday night, Roberto Di Matteo might have gone some way to solving a problem that has been nagging away at the club since January last year.
The problem has been Fernando Torres and the fact that a striker who cost 50million has been a million miles off the player he was at Liverpool.
He had lost his mojo as well as his place in the Spain squad, the latter of which marked a quite extraordinary decline. Only four years ago he was crowning a wonderful season at Anfield with the brilliant goal that won the European Championship.
Back on form: Fernando Torres (left) has shown signs of his best
From afar, his former colleagues at Liverpool have watched him suffer with a mixture of sadness and disbelief.
Clearly, there was an issue with what was a serious knee injury that took the shine off his performances in his final year at Anfield. It also seriously undermined his chances of making as great an impact at the last World Cup as he had in Austria and Switzerland.
But those same former colleagues would dismiss the idea that the Spain striker continues to struggle with a slight loss of pace. They don’t think the knee has slowed him down in the slightest. And the manner in which he skipped past Jardel in Lisbon this week before presenting Salomon Kalou with the opportunity to score would suggest they might be right.
No, in their view his problem has been mental rather than physical; a chronic loss of confidence they would almost liken to a breakdown. Speaking from bitter experience, they would say footballers can go through spells where they are afraid to cross that white line, afraid to receive a pass and utterly terrified by the prospect of suddenly finding themselves in the opposing box with only the goalkeeper to beat. The evidence would suggest Torres had endured such mental trauma.
It is not necessarily anyone’s fault but the players at Liverpool would point to certain contrasts between the time Torres enjoyed on Merseyside and his experiences at Chelsea.
Wasn't working: Torres was rarely at his best under Andre Villas-Boas
RAMIRES SURPISE AT WIN
Ramires told Portuguese TV on Tuesday how happy he was with Chelsea’s draw against Benfica — oblivious to the fact they won. Ramires thought the game ended 0-0 as he was writhing in agony when Salomon Kalou hit the winner. The stadium hushed as Chelsea celebrated and by the time Ramires returned, the game had restarted.
When he arrived at Anfield, he did so as a stellar Rafa Benitez signing and someone the players were thrilled to have on their team. He was the goalscorer the club had long been looking for; the player who could finally fill the void created by the departures of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.
Liverpool’s players were quick to appreciate the contribution Torres could make and they were only too happy to follow Benitez’s instructions and channel much of their effort into providing their supremely gifted striker with ammunition.
‘We worked out that if Fernando could get 30 goals a season we had a chance of doing something,’ said one Liverpool player. ‘It was all about getting the ball to him as much as we could.’
At Chelsea it has been different. Didier Drogba, a powerful presence in the dressing room and the main man until the arrival of Torres 14 months ago, simply saw him as a threat to his place. But in their desire to see their own names on the scoresheet, other players might not have necessarily provided Torres with the kind of support he enjoyed at his previous club. That might be a view Chelsea players want to contest but to other professionals that is how it has looked. Note how much more comfortable Torres appeared alongside Juan Mata and Kalou; two distinctly unselfish forwards.
Helping hand: Torres has worked best under Rafa Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo
According to those who know him, Torres would not be one for confronting colleagues and demanding more from them. He has proved himself a fighter on the field. A player who simply dusts himself down and goes again when fouled; who relishes the physical aspect of a duel with a defender as much as the tactical one. When Torres was still at Liverpool, John Terry expressed his admiration for the Spaniard’s battling qualities.
But when it comes to standing his ground in a dressing room that certainly proved too harsh an environment for Andre Villas-Boas, Torres is more likely to withdraw into his shell. What he needs, say those who have played with him, is support and encouragement, not least from the manager. Benitez is not the warmest of individuals but Torres knew he had his full backing.
The striker has been unlucky at Stamford Bridge, with Carlo Ancelotti already in jeopardy by the time he arrived and Villas-Boas too busy trying to win over the more established Chelsea players.
On the scoresheet: Torres found the net twice against Leicester in the FA Cup
In Di Matteo, though, Torres has found a believer — someone who was offering him support when he was the assistant to Villas-Boas. Every week Di Matteo would make a point of talking to Torres, counselling him, if you like, one to one.
Now Di Matteo is in charge as the interim first-team coach, it seems Torres might be trying to repay him. As well as that superb performance against Benfica there were the two goals against Leicester and another determined display against Manchester City.
According to one Chelsea source, Di Matteo is trying to manage with ‘calm and logic’.
But he has been clever with Torres, deploying him in a slightly different role that sees him drift wider and so removes some of the pressure on him.
The fact that Torres is starting to look like the player he once was is in part a product of astute management. Management that might be the difference between success and failure for Chelsea this season.