Will El Nino be swept out of Stamford Bridge?
DOORS are opening for Fernando Torres, but can he walk through them? There is a date out there in the new year calendar that will tell us whether Chelsea’s £50 million man will be remembered as a tragic figure.
Judgment day is Sunday, Feb 5, 2012, when Manchester United motor to the Bridge.
By then only Torres himself will be to blame if he has failed to put behind him the missed open goals, the pained looks and the pervading sense that he lacks the stomach to fight his own decline.
Great opportunities arise because Nicolas Anelka has moved to China, Didier Drogba is due at the Africa Cup of Nations in mid-January and Spain’s David Villa broke his shinbone playing for Barcelona in Japan on Thursday.
From Shanghai to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and on to Yokohama, the fates are now kind to Torres.
Before United’s visit he will pass the first anniversary of his sensational move from Liverpool to Chelsea. In that winter window £50 million of Roman Abramovich’s oligarchical plunder flashed north to Anfield and £35 million of it then found its way to Mike Ashley at Newcastle.
For the combined value of the Torres and Andy Carroll moves, London 2012 will be able to stage its opening and closing ceremonies with £4 million to spare, even after the Prime Minister doubled the budget.
Both Chelsea and Liverpool deal with the fall-out from those huge deals as a daily chore. For Andre Villas-Boas and Kenny Dalglish there is no escaping the hot scrutiny that comes with investing so much faith in a single idol.
Villas-Boas takes the worst of it. Torres, we all know, was Abramovich’s personal fancy, like Andrei Shevchenko: his insurance against non-qualification for the Champions League after a £1 billion spend on the whole caper. But was Torres good money after bad?
The club need an answer, once and for all. The reckoning is close.
Africa’s tournament starts on Jan 21. Fifa rules say Ivory Coast could summon Drogba up to 14 days before, though he is unlikely to leave that soon. Never mind. January is the time of plenty for Torres if he can shake off his lethargy.
With Anelka on the pioneer trail, Villas-Boas is left with Torres, Daniel Sturridge and Romelu Lukaku in the main goalscoring roles. Sturridge, a fine prospect, tends to play wide and Lukaku has yet to make much of an impression.
So a real shot at vindication opens up for Torres in January against Wolves, Portsmouth (in the FA Cup), Sunderland, Norwich and Swansea.
Then comes the United game. And if Torres is still becalmed by then, after four or five starts post-Christmas, then Villas-Boas is entitled to plan without him.
To cull his star No 9 at a bargain price 12 months after he blew in from Merseyside would be premature. By summer, though, if he fails while Drogba is away, they might as well drive him to the airport.
No manager needs an expensive spectre on the bench indefinitely. Neither Carlo Ancelotti nor Villas-Boas has been able to cut the ball and chains from El Nino’s feet. For such a lean, tall player, he looks heavy, ponderous. Most days there is no snap or zip in his legs.
By now you would expect to see indignation in his soft eyes: a raging need to show the game he is still the floating angel who scored 65 Premier League goals for Liverpool and 84 for Atletico Madrid.
The slide began at Anfield. So did the game of excuse-accumulation. Back then the team’s mediocrity and boardroom chaos were responsible. Poor Fernando was dispirited, we were told. This will not work twice. Only he can pick up the tab for his listlessness.
Villa’s injury in the Club World Cup came on the day Villas-Boas insisted Torres is not for sale. Spain’s door opens, too.
There are other strikers ahead of him in the line to replace Villa in Vicente del Bosque’s all-conquering side yet there could be no firmer helping hand from providence than a six-month lay-off for the compatriot who usurped him in Spain’s World Cup winning team.
Some days you could persuade yourself Torres thinks his career is already over. It took him 14 games to break his Chelsea duck.
He scored (and missed a sitter) against United at Old Trafford in September and struck again against Swansea six days later but was then sent off for a straight red card offence. His yield since: two in a 5-0 win over Genk in October.