Euro 2012: No end to Torres woe as Azzurri defy Spain
Spain 1 Italy 1
Fernando Torres, the lion of Vienna when Spain lifted the European Championship, reintroduced himself to the continent as the timid pussycat who has toiled ever since.
If ever a cameo encapsulated the crisis of confidence endured by the Chelsea striker in the four years since his matchwinner against Germany, here it was at its fullest, most excruciatingly painful.
The closing acts of the 1-1 draw with Italy were a study in Torres' sapping morale as he blew the opportunities to secure what, in truth, would have been an undeserved victory for the holders.
The afternoon began appallingly enough for him. His coach, Vicente del Bosque, decided that a starting formation with no strikers was preferable to trusting a player who cost £50m.
That choice appeared flawed as Italy not only undermined Spain's intent to pass them into submission, but often outplayed the world champions.
By the time Torres was summoned with 16 minutes of the latest enthralling contest of what is rapidly becoming the highest-quality international event in decades, Spain were desperate for firepower. Cesc Fabregas had equalised Antonio Di Natale's deserved 61st-minute opener, and the stage was set for Torres to underline the renewed vigour he had been feeling since achieving Champions League success.
Instead, he squandered several chances which, by the standards of the 2008 model, were glaring.
A minute after his arrival, he delayed when facing Gianluigi Buffon, allowing the Italian goalkeeper to cleanly tackle before a shot was unleashed.
Five minutes from time, an empty net was the target when Buffon was stranded yards from goal and Torres had time and space to pick a spot. He overhit his lob and adopted a familiar pose, head drooping. Too often in recent years the only highlights in a Torres performance are in his hair.
The 28-year-old used to summon feelings of awe. Now the overriding emotion tends to be one of sympathy, although his bursts of pace to create the goalscoring situations which were lacking before his arrival will offer hope. It is the lack of touch which continues to bewilder those who recall Torres' earlier peaks.
Del Bosque defended his selection, suggesting the timing of Torres' introduction was pre-planned.
"This was the ideal moment to put Torres in," he said. "It was an open match and he is suited to that. He created some chances and enjoyed it."
A victory would have flattered the holders. At their best Spain can make opponents resemble the cones on a practice pitch, rival midfielders left to stand in awe at the speed and direction of the passing around them. No doubt it was the confidence of such perpetual possession that prompted Del Bosque to discard the notion of a striker in David Villa's absence.
Instead, Fabregas was pushed into an advanced role, but the absence of a No 9 exposed a familiar flaw. Without a striker to run beyond a defence, Spain can appear like a world champion boxer limited solely to jabbing. The strongest opponents have the stamina to expose the flimsiness of such blows.
Italy, well equipped in the art of resilience, did more than just resist.
In emergency centre-half Daniel de Rossi, midfielder Andrea Pirlo and striker Antonio Cassano they had the game's most enterprising performers.
Italy's shirts may again be stained by match-fixing allegations in their domestic league, but they proved, as in the World Cup in 2006, there is no country more capable of finding redemption.
They could have led before substitute Di Natale's cool finish if Mario Balotelli had bothered to turn up. His performance echoed that of Torres, in that he was booked and denied himself a goal by delaying too long when clean through. He was subbed immediately and was still shaking his head on the bench when his replacement struck, benefiting from Pirlo's gliding midfield advance and perfectly weighted pass.
Prior to this, Iker Casillas had been the busier goalkeeper, denying Pirlo, Cassano, Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta during a first half which, in terms of chances created, was balanced in the Italians' favour.
Buffon was welcomed to the game in the second half as Fabregas and Andres Iniesta, came to the fore. It was no surprise when Italy led, however, as the rumours of their demise have again proved premature. (© Daily Telegraph, London)