Chelsea: A lack of viable options only thing keeping Torres in team
But Chelsea manager still considers dropping misfiring £50m striker for vital Juventus game
As he went through passport control at Turin airport, it was Fernando Torres from all the Chelsea squad who was singled out by one of the staff and approached for a photograph. The £50m man obliged, putting an arm around the shoulders of his new friend and cracking a rare smile for the picture.
Torres still has star billing by virtue of his reputation, but if Roberto Di Matteo had more options he would not be in the team. This is the striker who has scored 11 goals in 58 Premier League games for Chelsea. He has scored just six in 18 competitive appearances this season and his moping around during Saturday's defeat to West Bromwich Albion represented a new low in the troubled story of Torres at Chelsea.
Tonight, against Juventus, with the club's route into the knockout stages of the Champions League by no means secure, Di Matteo has to decide whether he must persist with the striker who has scored once since the first week in October or step into the unknown.
By this point last season Torres had already been dropped by Andre Villas-Boas and was growing accustomed to sitting gloomily on the bench. Goodness knows, Villas-Boas had many flaws but he was not afraid to leave out Roman Abramovich's single biggest signing, although at the time, Chelsea did at least have a very viable alternative in Didier Drogba.
Last season, Torres was dropped for 16 of Chelsea's 28 games before the new year. The contrast this season is stark. He has started every one of Chelsea's 20 games, including Community Shield and Super Cup, apart from the Capital One Cup tie against Manchester United for which he was suspended.
When the only other option as a centre-forward is Daniel Sturridge, that is what you end up with, although Sturridge, to his credit, looked much more dangerous against West Brom at the weekend.
Against Juventus tonight, Chelsea need to avoid defeat to ensure that a win over Nordsjaelland at Stamford Bridge on 5 December will guarantee they reach the Champions League knockout stages. Win tonight, and they will be through. The reigning European champions have been cursed this season with a very strong Champions League group but, as they passed the six-month anniversary of their win in Munich yesterday, they face another test of their resolve.
It is not as if they have not faced this kind of situation before. Last year they lost away to Bayer Leverkusen in the last minute of their penultimate group match, meaning they had to beat Valencia at home in their final group game. A 3-0 win thanks to two goals from Didier Drogba meant they reached the knock-out stages and the rest is the most glorious chapter in the club's history. But Drogba is gone and no-one has taken his place.
Will Di Matteo select Torres tonight? "Well, I always said that we have two strikers in our team, Fernando and Daniel Sturridge," the Chelsea manager said. "They're both fit and I'll have to see how we're going to go." Would he be prepared to drop him if necessary? "Well, whatever I believe is best for this game ..."
Without the injured John Terry and Frank Lampard, Chelsea have less experience to call upon in the post-Drogba era. Against the Italian champions, currently leading Serie A by four points and with the 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield, this is unquestionably a major challenge for Di Matteo's much younger Chelsea team.
"There's a degree of truth in what you're saying [about the lack of experience], but we still have plenty of experienced players in the team, and leaders," he said. "Petr Cech is there, we have Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel who has been playing for many, many years now, and Juan Mata. There are plenty of players who can be leaders who will be out on the pitch here as well. Everybody will have to show a bit of leadership in a game like this. Not just a couple of players."
He did not mention Torres in that list. It may have been a simple case of forgetfulness but you could hardly class the Spanish striker as a leader. It goes without saying that when they bought Torres in January last year, Chelsea hoped that by this stage of his career at the club he would be established as one of their greatest forwards but the reality is they are still waiting for him to deliver on that.
Di Matteo knows that if he leaves Torres out tonight it will be a deeply controversial decision within the club. He would have to win the match and even then it would beg serious questions about Torres' future come the next transfer window. Given the alternatives, Di Matteo might well feel that he has no option but to hope that tonight is the night for Chelsea's No 9.
Juventus: Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini*, Lichtsteiner, Marchisio*, Pirlo, Vidal, Isla, Quagliarella, Giovinco
Chelsea: Cech, Cole, Luiz, cahill, Ivanovic, Bertrand, Mikel, Ramires, Hazard, Mata, Torres
*one booking away from suspension
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Juventus Stadium, Turin
TV ITV 1 Referee C Cakir (Turkey)
Odds: Juve 5-6 Draw 12-5 Chelsea 3-1
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