Strength of 'ElNino' still key to success
THERE were times last night when it seemed fair to ask where the real Fernando Torres was hiding, as the man wearing his jersey squandered goal-scoring chances with uncharacteristic abandon. The impersonator didn't even look like him.
With the blondy, girlyish locks consigned to the dustbin for now, the Liverpool star quite literally took on the appearance of a different player. But the most worrying absence was the cutting edge which is his real trademark. He could have scored on five occasions, but managed to fluff his lines and then repeat the error consistently, first with his head, then with his feet.
It was the sub-plot to a first half where the Spanish regained the composure that deserted them at crucial stages in their humbling at the hands of Switzerland. Torres, though, was short of concert pitch, and was eventually withdrawn midway through the second half to be kept in safe keeping for the crucial battles ahead.
The 26-year-old will know that Group H could well be settled by virtue of goal difference. An on-song Torres could have put them in a stronger position ahead of their showdown with an impressive Chile side in Pretoria this Friday. He cut a frustrated figure as he took his seat on the bench after an abridged evening's work which fell short of his own high standards.
Still, this was more like the Spain which stormed to European Championship glory two years ago, and his presence was central to that.
Vicente Del Bosque has unquestionably put his stamp on this golden generation, opting for a pair of holding midfielders whereas his predecessor Luis Aragones got by with just one, the peerless Marcos Senna, who is dreadfully unfortunate to be absent from this soiree.
Yet it was return of Torres to the starting XI which gave the Spanish extra purpose up front. His cameo in the defeat to Switzerland illustrated just what the pre-tournament favourites had missed as a result of his injury-interrupted preparation.
David Villa may be a more polished all-round player, as illustrated by his superb brace here and his involvement outside the box, but this Spanish team is more effective with Torres as the forward-most operator. From that berth, he nabbed the decisive goal which claimed that Euro '08 crown at the expense of Germany, spinning off the last man to finish with aplomb.
Critics of Del Bosque would prefer if Villa was deployed alongside Torres in a traditional two-man attack, rather than the 4-2-3-1 which was in operation here, although the two-goal contribution from the Nou-Camp-bound 28-year-old roving in from the left made this the wrong night to quibble. Nevertheless, the movement of the Anfield darling was a key factor in the European side's ascendancy.
While the successful Aragones formula two years ago was effectively a 4-1-3-2, Villa adopted a deeper role. Torres may have grabbed the all-important goal in the final, yet it was only his second goal of a tournament where he did a lot of the donkey work and created the space for the imperious midfield who pressed into enemy territory with intent.
Honduras were so poor here, however, that the Spanish were able to fashion a host of chances for the lone front man, who wandered into space while defenders switched off. Alas, the precision when it came to delivering the final touch was lacking. It made for unusual viewing, considering his reputation at club level for being so clinical when feeding off scraps.
It's a strange time for Torres, of course, and not just because he's peering at someone unfamiliar in the mirror every morning. While he was strutting his stuff here, media reports were circulating which indicated that the powers that be at Merseyside believe they have persuaded 'El Nino' to stick around for another year, despite the departure of Rafa Benitez.
Surely though, it won't have escaped Torres' attention that he is the only member of Del Bosque's favoured selection now plying his trade outside Spain. Indeed, Villa's move to Barca means that defender Joan Capdevila and tricky winger Jesus Navas are the only others who won't be involved in El Clasico next term.
Perhaps, in that context, he can be excused for an erratic evening if the debate over his future is playing on his mind. Certainly, it's a more plausible explanation than the guff peddled by Samson.