Critics still to be convinced as Torres struggles to put his best foot forward


Chelsea v Manchester Utd:Tomorrow is another big test for the Spaniard as he seeks his best form for Chelsea, writes DAVID HYTNER

FERNANDO TORRES’S Chelsea career is the pub debate that never stops. The critics always believe that they boast the loudest and decisive word when they highlight his scoring record since the €62 million transfer from Liverpool: 18 goals in 81 appearances, which includes the one against Manchester City in the Community Shield in August. Should that count? Even that was up for question at Roberto Di Matteo’s briefing for tomorrow’s showdown with Manchester United.

The anti-Torres argument is simplistic and it fails to acknowledge the work that he does in other areas for the team.

Everyone at Chelsea stresses the point, from the directors to the players. Doubtless the big man says it too, although no one can be entirely sure what Roman Abramovich thinks.

Suffice to say that the owner made it a personal mission to prise Torres from Liverpool and, this season, having removed other strikers from the payroll, he wants to love Torres’s efforts more than ever.

Torres says he has become a better player at Chelsea, learning to “play more outside the box, associating more with my team-mates”. He makes assists. He feels he can “mix it more”. His supporters will urge you to look at his all-round game. At times this season it has been eye-catching.

The Chelsea diehards have stuck with him because they see the intensity of his work rate and the flickers of the player that he was at Liverpool and before that at Atletico Madrid.

Perhaps they enjoy the feeling of closing ranks around one of their own in the face of hostility.

The yearning for him to roll back the years is deep and it should be noted that it is pronounced among the neutrals as well. There have been few finer sights in the Premier League years than Torres, in Liverpool colours, switching on the afterburners and finishing with ruthless cool.

The trouble for Torres these days is the sense that he is rarely more than a couple of patchy performances from scrutiny or crisis. The weight of recent history does not help. When a striker goes five months and 25 games without a goal, as Torres did for Chelsea last season, his overall club numbers may never recover. Nor may his confidence.

Torres’s performance in Chelsea’s 2-1 Champions League defeat by Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday was some way short of patchy; there was a spell early in the second half when his touch and decision-making broke down completely and it is at those moments when even his most passionate defenders shift uncomfortably and it becomes easy to question his state of mind.

In the previous game, the 4-2 win at Tottenham Hotspur, Torres had played well but there was still a move when he wriggled through and, to general shock, looked to pass instead of shoot.

The amateur psychologist enjoys himself with Torres. When forced to rely on instinct the player has shown wonderful flashes this season, especially in the league against Newcastle United and Arsenal, when he scored crucial goals. Yet the suspicion remains that he can over-think scoring situations.

“Strikers are instinctive and it’s difficult to understand what goes through their mind when they are in a position,” said Di Matteo said. “I’ve never been a striker so I wouldn’t be able to know but they have that instinct. Fernando has always had that and still has it.”

The pressure on Torres is intense and, in the wake of Donetsk, it will be more marked still against United. The 28-year-old often looks as if the weight of the world sits on his shoulders and, with only Daniel Sturridge in the squad to provide competition or respite, he must also contend with a physical burden. Torres has started in every match this season and, although Di Matteo said that he was not afraid to drop him, it was hard to envisage seeing Torres on the bench tomorrow.

The manager talked up Torres’s more encouraging strike rate this season, which stands at six in 14 games if the Community Shield is included. It has regularly felt like a battle for everybody inside Stamford Bridge to paint Torres in the most favourable light and goalkeeper Petr Cech said: “All strikers need goals. His movement creates space for others and you could see at Tottenham that others took advantage. I think it is just a matter of time for Fernando.”

But the fact that the questions keep coming is instructive.

GAME ON: Some key battles

David Luiz v Robin van Persie

Luiz’s defensive abilities have long been questioned with his marauding runs often leaving him out of position. It is in big games like this that Luiz will need to control those runs and use all his experience to lead a Chelsea backline without suspended captain John Terry.

Van Persie is still finding his feet at Old Trafford but he has the ability to trouble any defence in the world on his day. Javier Hernandez’s midweek Champions League double against Braga means Van Persie must be alert as the Mexican is attempting to force his way into the United starting XI at the expense of Van Persie or Wayne Rooney.

Eden Hazard v Michael Carrick

Hazard has enjoyed a promising start to his Chelsea career after signing from French side Lille for £32 million in the summer. His movement and ability on the ball alongside fellow attacking midfielders Juan Mata and Oscar will be pivotal to Chelsea’s chances of seeing off United.

Hazard’s every move will be watched by Carrick who has become a pillar of the Manchester United midfield in recent times. The England international, who has also played at centre-half for Ferguson this season, will be expected to drop back and fend off the Chelsea forays.

Rio Ferdinand v Fernando Torres

Chelsea’s Torres will want to make the most of United’s defensive frailties as he looks to continue his goalscoring form, having scored six times in 15 appearances this season.

Ferdinand will look to end a difficult few days on a high with a commanding display at the heart of the United defence with the Reds hoping he can find form and bring some much-needed stability.

The United backline has been under the spotlight in recent weeks having conceded 11 goals in their opening eight Premier League fixtures – more than any other team in the top four.

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