'Operation Torres' set for launch
Rafael Benitez believes his database of information on Fernando Torres, and his knowledge of the mercurial striker from their Liverpool days, can reinvigorate Chelsea's No 9, beginning against Manchester City at the Bridge.
If Benitez can answer the £50m question, he has a chance to win over the sceptics on the Shed, who will protest tomorrow at the sacking of Roberto di Matteo.
Kenny Dalglish had a plan to inspire Torres at Anfield, filling him with belief through inspiring words rather than clever tactics, but the forward was soon sold to Chelsea in 2011. Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Di Matteo failed to breathe life into El Nino. Now Roman Abramovich has set Benitez the task of completing 'Operation Torres', an issue discussed over dinner on Thursday.
Benitez might find himself throwing good ideas after bad attitude. Torres, goal-shy and with a body language requiring subtitles, might be pining for a return to Spain. But Benitez believes in the forward. Even if he did not, he would have to. Roman Decrees and all that.
Seeing Benitez in a Chelsea tracksuit was rather like finding Paul McCartney fronting the Stones, yet he made an eloquent, persuasive case for reviving Torres. Obsessed with the forensic side of the game, the Pro-Zone analysis, Benitez has been assessing Torres on television during his unscheduled break from the game.
"When I was at home I watched a lot of games every weekend,'' Benitez said. "I write down the systems, make notes on the players. I have a folder with reports, a database of information on every player."
Benitez brought Torres to Liverpool in 2007, creating a stage for his prolific feats. Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard played quarterbacks, releasing the new arrival. Initially, the pair operated deep, inevitably tempting opposing defences to push up, so exposing space that the pacy Torres could attack. Even such expert defenders as Nemanja Vidic were caught out.
"At the beginning at Liverpool, the opposition didn't know him, so it was fine,'' Benitez recalled. "The pace of Gerrard's passes was very good and Fernando could take advantage of Stevie's quick thinking.''
Other teams gradually became more cognisant of Torres' threat. "After that, we were on top of other teams but didn't have that space so Stevie was scoring the goals.'' Even when the opposition push up now, the blue-shirted Torres is rarely invited through because Chelsea, using Ramires and John Obi Mikel at the base of their 4-2-3-1 system, lack Howitzer delivery men.
"We maybe don't have the players who can play 50-metre passes like Alonso but we have players who are really good at the passing game. We have Oscar or Mata with short passes... you don't just need a long pass.''
Benitez has spoken to Torres, finding "a player with commitment, with ideas to improve, who knows me and what we're looking for".
The widespread perception that Torres fell out with Benitez in the manager's troubled last 18 months at Anfield was dismissed by Chelsea's latest interim first-team manager. "The problem we had was not with Fernando but with the owners (Tom Hicks and George Gillett),'' Benitez said. "I can guarantee Fernando is trying his best. I talked to him. He looks fine."
As ever with Chelsea, alternatives float across headlines. A certain clinical Colombian at Atletico Madrid? "Falcao, Falcao?'' Benitez mused. "Yes, not bad." Such is the Chelsea way. When the going gets tough, the owner goes shopping. Falcao could become the next focus of Abramovich's ardour.
Benitez smiled at the suggestion that a manager such as him, a Champions League winner in 2005, an individual with a high regard for his own worth, would be forced into selecting any player on an owner's whim. "In 26 years in charge, I've had a lot of different owners, presidents and chairmen. They like to talk about football and know what is going on. If you have confidence in yourself and explain yourself, everyone can understand. My impression with him (Abramovich) is he's a nice person. You can talk with him. He understands. He likes to see you have a clear idea. The priority of the owner is: if I'm a good manager, a good coach, if the players understand me, if we'll be a winning team. He's happy with the things I've said."
Another of Abramovich's 2011 signings, the debate-dividing Marmite man that is David Luiz, received a ringing endorsement.
"He's a very, very good player," Benitez said. "He has made mistakes, but a lot of players have made mistakes. My belief is he's so good he will show this on the pitch all the time, with the help of the team, the staff and me." Classic Benitez.
He feels he is the man with the Midas touch, a self-belief that privately, and occasionally publicly, antagonised some of his peers in Premier League dugouts. Benitez needs to subdue the English champions tomorrow. Benitez expects to succeed.
"I was over 20 years in the Real Madrid academy so to be first is the only thing I understand. To be second is to be unhappy. I had that conversation today with John Terry. He knows. He's a winner. I'm a winner."
Not entirely. Chelsea supporters intend chanting Di Matteo's name after 16 minutes, reflecting his old shirt number. Benitez knows he will be judged on results, on standing up to rivals. As for Alex Ferguson, Benitez said: "When I came to England (in 2004) I knew the other managers. Arsene Wenger was the best manager who had been here for a while.'' Ouch.
It is good to have characters such as Benitez amid the storylines of the Premier League soap opera. Yesterday he certainly talked a good game. Tomorrow, he must turn words into deeds, particularly goalscoring ones by Torres. (© Daily Telegraph, London)