Fernando Torres: 'I think I can do better. I can make Jose think I am the best option'
There is a moment in my conversation with Fernando Torres when he stops and goes right back to the start of his career, to when he was a teenager at Atletico Madrid, and recalls what it was like to be looking in from the outside at the high-stakes world of elite football, and all its imponderables.
He remembers the summer of 1998 when the Italian striker Christian Vieri left the club for Lazio having been La Liga's top goalscorer in his one season there. Torres was just 14 at the time and was "watching Atletico from the stands" right up to the moment he made his debut three years later. He was bemused by Vieri's decision to leave.
"I didn't realise how my life was changing," he says. "When I was 17, 18, 20, I didn't realise how big football was and everything around football. How many people live for football and love football. I was a professional but I was a supporter. When I was 14 years old and when Christian Vieri left I didn't understand why the players were leaving! Then through the years you understand more things and you have to be more careful when you do things."
Since then he has made his own big moves, from Atletico to Liverpool and on to Chelsea, the £50m transfer in January 2011 that made him the most expensive footballer in British history. Torres' story remains one of the most intriguing in English football, the man who was once arguably the deadliest striker on the planet with 81 goals in 143 games for Liverpool who has never been able to recreate that level of form at Chelsea.
Torres does not do a lot of interviews but he has made an exception in this case and he faces the issues in his own career in unblinking fashion in a small meeting room at Cobham. He is a thoughtful, contemplative type who weighs his answers carefully and does not dodge the difficult questions.
It has not been a good week at Chelsea. Two defeats, to Crystal Palace on Saturday and then 3-1 away to Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday, in which Torres was a second-half substitute with Andre Schürrle picked ahead of him. Afterwards, Jose Mourinho was critical of his strikers. Asked whether he would have beaten PSG had he had their forwards at his disposal, the Chelsea manager replied, "Of course."
With Samuel Eto'o still injured it will be instructive to see who Mourinho picks to lead the line against Stoke City today. In a season interrupted by injury, Torres has scored eight goals, four of them in the Premier League. In the past, most notably at the end of the 2011-12 season, he has declared himself unhappy with any demotion from first-team action but not, he says, under Mourinho.
"He (Mourinho) has to choose the one (striker) he thinks is better and try to manage the situation with the players," Torres says. "He didn't do anything special with me. Just treats me like one more. He puts me on the pitch when he thinks I am the best option and on the bench when he thinks I am not the best option.
"My aim is to try to make him feel I am always the best option for him. You have to have ways to adapt to this situation. Blame the manager? Blame your team-mates? Blame everyone? Or ask from yourself a bit more. I think I can do better. I can make Jose think I am the best option. That is what I have to do every day in training, all the matches. I just ask of myself the responsibility.
"The things you cannot change you can't waste your time on. I cannot (automatically) change the way the manager thinks so I have to ask myself and be critical with myself to try to understand what he wants. I have to put more and more effort into these things. It is what I have been doing all my life ... I cannot change the others so I have to be critical of myself.
"You have to prove yourself every day. You have to live for today. Three years ago? Five years ago? It's today. If the manager thinks there is another player better than you he is going to play and this is the way. You have to try to improve and keep fighting and try to change the manager's mind.
"Hopefully one day Jose can say 'This (Torres) is my striker, he is going to be my striker' like he does with some of the players who have won the appreciation from him."
It is a strikingly humble approach from the man who has won a World Cup, two European Championships, a Champions League, Europa League and the FA Cup since he came to England in 2007.
Watching him play, it can be difficult to read the emotions of Torres through that glassy-eyed stare maintained in triumph and calamity, but once he starts talking he is a fascinating subject.
Last season was his best at Chelsea with 23 goals in all competitions, and a renewal of his partnership with his former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, the interim coach. Torres said he understood "what we wanted from the beginning". This season he says he has struggled more in the games where teams have sought to deny Chelsea space and the subject turns to Torres having to change his game as he gets older, like, for example, Alan Shearer, the Premier League's all-time leading goalscorer.
"Shearer is a clear example," Torres says. "He adapted his game to what is better for him and he did great, always. It is not easy for a footballer to understand. You have to change because when things are not (going) well you normally think 'I have to go back to basics, the things I have been doing'. But sometimes you have to change because the way you are playing.
"You adapt to the way your team is playing. It is what I am doing now. Atletico played one system. Spanish football is completely different. I came to England and I adapted very quickly because the Liverpool team with Benitez we played compact and so quick and it was easier for me. The national team and Chelsea are similar. We play with a lot of quality, we keep the ball, we pass the ball a lot of times."
What is Torres' future? There can be no doubt that Mourinho will buy a new striker in the summer with the preferred choice the Atletico striker Diego Costa, Brazilian-born but now a Spanish citizen who has also taken Torres' place in the Spain squad.
"In the last month I have moved to Atletico, Valencia, Inter and Monaco," Torres says with a smile, in reference to the stories written about him. "I have two more years left on my contract and I said on the first day that I have signed five years with Chelsea and I want to play five years with Chelsea."
It is interesting to hear him talk about Costa without a hint of bitterness. "I read an interview where he (Costa) said Spain gave him everything," Torres says. "He moved from Brazil to Portugal when he was very young and after Atletico signed him he has been on loan everywhere in Spain. So I understand what he was trying to explain. He felt Spain gave him everything in football.
"He came from Brazil and loved Brazil. But in football he felt he had something to give back to Spain and it's great to have him. He's had a brilliant season and I am sure he will be important for Spain in Rio."
Others might have been less generous about a player switching nationality to take their place, but Torres is nothing if not gracious. He talks fondly of the Liverpool supporters who give him merciless stick in the stadium but are different "when they see me on the street or in the letters they send me".
Hope seems to spring eternal for him. He believes he will reclaim his place for Chelsea and for Spain, and staying positive, surely, is half the battle. (© Independent News Service)