Di Matteo: Restored Torres responded in fantastic style

 

St Andrew's

Roberto Di Matteo's first team selection as Chelsea's interim manager last night was unremarkable in as much as it was the same XI, bar one, that had been fortunate to deny Birmingham City the win at Stamford Bridge in that might have brought the reign of Andre Villas-Boas to an even earlier end.

The Italian has made it clear that reaching fourth place in the Premier League is the overriding priority of his stewardship. There is barely a Chelsea manager of recent vintage who has not won the FA Cup and it has kept none of them in a job.

Yet the one choice who might be of significance was Fernando Torres, restored to attack for the first time since the draw against the Championship side which led to this FA Cup fifth-round replay. It can have been only a matter of irritation to Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, that Villas-Boas was no more able than his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti to rebuild the Spaniard's broken confidence and yet, having paid £50m for the striker, he expected to see him play.

Last night was the former Liverpool forward's 50th game for Chelsea, a period during which he has scored five goals, not one of them since last October, in 23 games.

His team-mates, loyal to the man, continue to insist it will be only a matter of time before he explodes into life. Branislav Ivanovic is the latest to jump to his support, although the Serbian defender admitted, tellingly, that Torres needs to "break a psychological barrier".

Never did that seem a more accurate assessment than when Torres made for himself the best chance of a first half in which Chelsea took their time to warm to the task. It came in stoppage time, after 45 minutes in which even a Birmingham side badly hit by injuries had done effective job in limiting his opportunities. At last an attempt to turn a home defender came off, leaving Curtis Davies on the floor, but presented with the sight of goal Torres dragged his shot horribly wide.

In the second half, while involved in neither of the goals that effectively ended Birmingham's chance, he did win the penalty that Juan Mata missed, and then provided a superb low cross that Daniel Sturridge somehow messed up when it seemed impossible not to score.

It was an improvement, for sure, on his performance when these sides first met, when he was replaced at half-time, and good enough for Di Matteo to declare himself impressed.

"Fernando had a great game, a fantastic game," he said. "He missed a chance in the first half but other players missed chances." There was an argument, perhaps, that he should have taken the penalty himself, although Di Matteo would not be drawn into one, insisting that the decision between Torres and Mata had been one to be made on the field.

It is not the first time that Torres has hinted at an end to his torrid time, but perhaps an extended run in the side now might not be a bad thing. Maybe the latest swing of the Abramovich axe will be seen as the pivotal moment for the largest of all his extravagances.

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