Raul hails Torres as young pretender threatens Bernabeu
Real Madrid legend praises Liverpool's talented Spanish striker ahead of tonight's Champions League tie, writes Pete Jenson
Wednesday 25 February 2009
"Raul retire! Raul retire!" sang the Sporting Gijon fans 10 days ago as the veteran of 15 seasons at Real Madrid warmed-up before kick-off. Just over 90 minutes later he left the field having scored twice in a 4-0 win – the first goal had made him the club's all-time top scorer in all competitions on 309 goals.
He is also the national team's all-time top scorer on 44 and the Champions League leading marksman on 64 but tonight Raul Gonzalez Blanco faces a man who may one day threaten both those records – Fernando Torres.
"He will go as far as he wants to go," says the old master of Liverpool's number nine. "It depends on how much he pushes himself and I think he is the kind of player that pushes himself to the absolute limit.
"He is a striker with a tremendous amount of power and pace. An aggressive centre-forward who hits the ball very hard, who is superb in the air and is very capable of getting away from defenders.
"He was third in the Fifa World Player which shows you what national team coaches and captains think of him. He scored over 30 goals last season, something that is beyond most strikers. And on top of all that he is still very young and yet already with so much experience."
Raul has no doubts that experience has been enriched by Torres' leap of faith across the Channel into the arms of Rafa Benitez's Liverpool.
"He is now in a team where he is fulfilling his potential," says the Real Madrid captain. "He feels important at the club but there are other big players there too, to share the burden."
At Atletico Madrid the burden was all Torres's. The weight on his shoulders always seemed to show itself whenever Atletico played Real: he has never scored at the Bernabeu, venue for tonight's first leg.
"That run without a goal came in very different circumstances," argues Raul. "They were derby games with a lot of tension and a lot of pressure on him. It was too much. Now the load is much lighter."
It might still be tough for Torres to break his Bernabeu duck. Real Madrid have conceded just two goals in their last nine games and Raul believes the side's new-found resilience is largely due to new coach Juande Ramos, who he thinks was unfairly treated by Tottenham.
"At the start of the season we let in a lot of goals. We suffered a lot. Since Juande's arrival the team looks much more solid and we can still improve – we have only been together under him for two months.
"When Juande arrived [at Tottenham] the team improved drastically in a very short space of time. Then the club sold two strikers. Robbie Keane and Berbatov were very important for a team like Tottenham.
"Juande's career record is there for all to see. For what he achieved at Seville [five trophies in two years] and for those first few months at Tottenham – if he had had the players that he wanted then perhaps the club would have been in another position."
Raul believes Ramos' year in England and the fact that so many Liverpool games are shown on Spanish TV could be of some advantage. "It's going to be a very tactical encounter because Benitez will have studied every last detail and Juande is very similar," he says. "He is someone who studies the opposition and he knows Liverpool from his time in England.
"When he was at Tottenham they played against them and practically every week we are seeing Liverpool's matches on TV. There will not be any big surprises. These games will be decided by the smallest of details."
Details such as a spark of brilliance from Steven Gerrard, who is in the Anfield club's squad despite his recent hamstring problems, perhaps. "He is one of the best players in the world," says Raul. "He has so much quality and he knows how to help his team-mates. I've seen a lot of games where it has been him who has won difficult matches for them by making or scoring the all-important goal. He is a fantastic player."
And as a one-club player there are even more similarities to be drawn between Raul and Gerrard than Raul and Torres. "Gerrard is the soul of that team," he says. "He is Liverpool. It is very difficult to think about Liverpool without him in the side, or to think of Gerrard in another team."
During the dark days of Galatico Madrid, when Real broke shirt sales records but won nothing on the pitch for three straight seasons, Raul considered his options. And with his great friend Fernando Morientes at Liverpool a move to Anfield became a possibility. Ultimately the closest he came was a guided tour of Melwood and a home match at Anfield.
"I visited Morientes and I went to see a match and it made a big impression on me. The stadium, the atmosphere, it was something I enjoyed very much. It is always a good experience to go to England. Anfield has so much history and I can't wait to go and play the second leg.
"But in terms of a move for players such as Gerrard or myself I think there is a big emotional pull because we feel it is 'our' club. People can tell you that there is interest from elsewhere but when it comes down to making a decision it is much harder to leave."
That three-year run without a trophy was ended with a league title two seasons ago. But Real have remained in the European wilderness. "I have won three Champions Leagues but the last one was in 2002," he admits. "In the last few seasons we have not been able to get past the last 16 and we are up against a rival who in the last few seasons has played two finals and a semi-final."
How Raul would love to captain the side that lifts the trophy for the 10th time. Scoring, along the way, a few more goals to stay out in front as the tournament's top scorer. Torres, in his second season in the competition, lags 58 goals behind. Can the Liverpool man get close to Raul's records?
"I hope so," says Raul. "I don't think as players we really think about records. We just think about playing well in every game. It is clear he is one of the outstanding strikers in the world and he is only going to get better."
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