Thursday 18 January 2018

Torres conjures brace with flashes of old magic

Fernando Torres celebrates his second goal yesterday
Fernando Torres celebrates his second goal yesterday

Sunderland is not renowned as a holiday resort, but Chelsea must have found their trip to Wearside as restorative and reinvigorating as any visit to a swankily exotic health spa.

If Fernando Torres's game remains in convalescence, powerful hints of an impending full recovery were contained in the two goals scored by the Spain striker and the other he created for Juan Mata.

By the time Adam Johnson answered back for Sunderland and Martin O'Neill prefaced a mini home revival by moving the excellent Danny Rose from left-back into central midfield, it was far too late to spoil Rafael Benitez's evening.

Chelsea's latest manager headed to Newcastle airport to catch the team's charter flight to the World Club Championship in Japan, celebrating the first Premier League win of a hitherto extremely uncomfortable Stamford Bridge tenure.

While this was far from a vintage Chelsea performance – Sunderland have, after all, won only two of their last 23 Premier League games and appear destined for a relegation battle – he and Torres suggested they are not exactly the busted flushes of popular imagination. Yesterday morning Torres was described as about one thousand times worse a striker than his former Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba. The Sunderland defence might have begged to differ after he expertly volleyed Benitez's side into an early lead following a sublime move featuring Victor Moses's pass and an Eden Hazard cross.

Admittedly this could be described as a mixed 90 minutes from Torres but, quite apart from his first league goals since early October, there were definite purple patches replete with exhilarating movement, acceleration and shooting. With a little more luck, he could easily have completed a treble.

It may be too early to talk confidently about "Fernando's rebirth" but his performance can certainly be interpreted as that of a forward emerging from a lengthy hibernation.

Benitez's believes he will once again coax the best out of the man he turned into a £50m player at Liverpool but the task is complicated by Chelsea's lack of through-ball specialists in the Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard moulds.

Oriol Romeu's audition for the role ended abruptly when the deep-sitting midfielder limped off with knee trouble. With well under a quarter of the game gone it was too early to liberate the fit-again Frank Lampard from the bench so Oscar jogged on and into an unfamiliar holding role alongside Ramires in the visiting 4-2-3-1 formation.

It took nearly half an hour for Petr Cech to be forced into his first real save but it was a good one, involving the diversion of Stephane Sessegnon's stinging shot for a corner. If O'Neill felt a brief glimmer of optimism it was erased shortly before half-time when Sebastian Larsson's awkward, needless tackle on Ramires resulted in a penalty. Torres, suddenly exuding confidence from every pore, stepped forward to send Simon Mignolet the wrong way.

The Spain striker very nearly completed a hat-trick shortly after half-time. Connecting with the ball after Moses's cross bounced off Phil Bardsley's knee, he unleashed a brilliant, high velocity effort which hit the junction of post and bar. With Mignolet wrong-footed, the excellent Mata stroked the rebound into the net.

If Mata's art is making exceptionally difficult manoeuvres look simple, Adam Johnson has spent the past few months making heavy weather of the most straightforward situations but he offered a few hints that, like Torres, he may be on the road to recovery. Johnson at least made the scoresheet, shooting home from a tight angle.

Johnson's willingness to run at players, Ashley Cole in particular, suggested that maybe, just maybe, the £10m handed to Manchester City in exchange for his services last summer was not wasted.

O'Neill's cause still looked pretty hopeless but his tactical re-jig proved so inspired that Chelsea experienced a few wobbles. With Rose pulling the strings, Sunderland were finally able to keep the ball and use it incisively. So much so that Cech was required to be at his best to save Johnson's free-kick and Connor Wickham's shot.

Sensing danger, Benitez replaced Hazard, who had faded, with Lampard and the thoughts of Sunderland supporters began drifting towards Tuesday night's vital meeting with Reading. Lose that one and O'Neill will face some extremely serious questions.


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