Paul Kelso: Dropping Abramovich's great indulgence Torres could prove death knell
Published 21/11/2012 | 05:00
When results get sticky for Chelsea, their team-sheets are anticipated like Papal bulls, particularly in Italy. Last night, it was Roberto Di Matteo's turn to produce 11 names for a crucial European tie on the peninsula, hoping his selection amounted to a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than a resignation letter.
Nine months ago, Andre Villas-Boas dropped Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole in Naples and a fortnight later was dropped himself. Here, with Chelsea needing at least a point to remain in control of their defence of the title, Di Matteo made a big call of his own.
After starting every game for which he was available and rarely looking worthy of his place, Fernando Torres was dropped. With Roman Abramovich in jittery mood, pondering the imperial thumbs down despite the trophies, it amounted to a bold, brave call.
Torres represents Abramovich's greatest indulgence, and dropping him was hazardous. With the owner in this mood, Chelsea coaches have to play two games; the one on the field and the one in the oligarch's head. Only by winning the first do they have a chance in the second.
Di Matteo had given prior warning of his willingness to jettison Torres, but what was not anticipated was the nature of the change. With his only other central option, Daniel Sturridge, injured, the manager shifted Eden Hazard to the point of the attack.
Torres, we can assume, did not take it well. He arrived on the field for the warm-up sporting a pout worthy of a ball-boy told he was not required, and moped in his substitute's bib as his team-mates prepared.
The selection amounted to a double snub for the Spaniard, but given his recent form, it was hard to argue. On Saturday at West Brom, he had impersonated a centre-forward, so asking Hazard to play as a 'false nine' was perhaps not such a great leap.
It still demonstrated huge faith in the young Belgian, even allowing for his fast start to Premier League life. He is not entirely new to the role, having played centrally for his country against England earlier this year.
Though not decisive that afternoon, his elusiveness discomfited his new team-mates Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole sufficiently for Cole to herald the arrival of a major new talent when he returned to training at Chelsea.
He also clearly has an eye for goal, having scored 36 times in 126 appearances for Lille, where he was usually deployed as a playmaking No 10, and four times already this season for Chelsea.
Given the nature of the game and the opposition this was not to be a night for plundering. With the new Stadio Juventus packed and expectant, Hazard was likely to have to feed off scraps of possession and make the most of the breaks that came his way.
For the most part he did it well, providing the prerequisites of movement and application so obviously missing from Torres' most recent performances.
He lacks the physical presence to take on Juventus' three towering centre-halves, his greatest coming at ground level. Whenever Chelsea were forced to look long, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci gave him not a sniff, but they were less composed when Oscar and Hazard ran at them.
Within 10 minutes, that combination very nearly gave Chelsea the lead. A wonderful weaving run from Oscar committed the defence and when he slid the ball right to Hazard he had a gilded opportunity.
Taking a single touch, he shot between Gianluigi Buffon's legs, but the ball diverted wide off his ankle.
When the ball rippled the side netting, the Chelsea fans behind the goal went up in celebration but it was a false dawn for the false nine, and the closest they came to delight.
Only with Chelsea 2-0 down and 20 minutes ago did Torres get his chance, replacing Jon Obi Mikel. There was to be no great redemption for him or the manger however, and come full-time, Chelsea's Champions League fate was out of their hands.
Likewise, the future of Di Matteo and Torres. (© Daily Telegraph, London)