Torres hits the wall as Spain bid to climb out of trophy rut

Spanish fans were hoping their Premier League matadors would be the key to ending 44 barren years, but Liverpool's Fernando Torres cannot buy a goal and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas cannot make the starting 11, writes Pete Jenson
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The chances of Cesc Fabregas being left out of Arsenal's first team are as remote as the chances of Fernando Torres going eight months without scoring for Liverpool. But with five days to go before Euro 2008 kicks off Fabregas is desperately fighting for his place in Spain coach Luis Aragones' starting XI and Torres is looking for his first goal for his country since last September.

If Spain are to end 44 years without a major trophy they need the striker, who scored 33 goals in his first season in England, and the boss of Arsenal's midfield to be at their best. But in Saturday's penultimate friendly on home soil – a 2-1 win against Peru – there was more evidence that neither currently sits that comfortably in coach Aragones' masterplan.

While Torres was failing to score Fabregas failed to make the starting line-up. He was left on the bench for the first half in which Spain played their best football and has yet to convince his manager that he merits being an automatic starter.

Aragones has already confirmed he will be using two systems in the tournament. And only one of those makes room for Fabregas.

When Spain play with five midfielders behind a lone striker the Arsenal man is in, but when Aragones plays two up front Fabregas, as he did against Peru, loses his place.

Even when he starts it is a very different Fabregas on display to the player who turns out at the Emirates Stadium.

Liverpool striker Torres recognises that it is unfair to expect to see Fabregas in his Arsenal pomp for his country. "English football is very different to the Spain team," he says.

"He has very different roles in the two sides. In the national team there is a clearly defined system which he fits into, but he does not have the leading role that he has with Arsenal.

"For his club he is the reference for the whole team. Possession goes through him. He directs the play, shoots, takes the free-kicks and corners. In the Spain team those responsibilities are divided between four or five players and that is why you can't expect to see the same player that plays for Arsenal."

For his part Torres should start regardless of whether Spain are playing 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. But his fitness and form continue to give Spain fans and coach Aragones cause for concern.

The top scorer during his coach's reign with 15 goals in 48 games has not scored in a competitive match since last September when he got on the scoresheet against Latvia.

"He is not right physically" admitted Aragones at the weekend. "We have decided to give him a bit of a rest."

The fear is that instead of flying through the tournament on the strength of his amazing debut season in England, Torres could be about to hit the wall after his first marathon campaign with Liverpool.

If the well-being of their two English-based talismans leaves something to be desired there is still much to justify Spain's status as second favourites behind Germany to win the tournament.

They have not been defeated in 15 games and they are full of goals even without an on-form Torres. David Villa scored 23 this season for relegation strugglers Valencia and their third striker, Mallorca's Dani Guiza picked up the silver boot with a 29-goal haul that left him trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo in the whole of Europe.

Any midfield that can afford to leave Fabregas out of its gala quartet must be good. Two of the stars of Spain's engine room have had little coverage outside the country but the rest of Europe could be about to find out just how good David Silva and Andres Iniesta are.

So worried are Valencia fans that Silva will be sold this summer that they have set up a website campaigning to keep him at the club. The midfielder could be heading to Barcelona for close to £20m regardless because Valencia have a new stadium to finance and having failed to sell the old one they are forced to sell their best players.

Some eye-catching performances from the 22-year-old will ensure he and his club get the best possible move. He will start on the left-hand side of Spain's midfield but with a licence to cut inside and play off the striker or strikers.

On the other flank and similarly free to roam in from the touchline will be Iniesta. The palest man in football is usually depicted with a Marcel Marceau face by cartoonists in the Catalan sports press. When writing about him Barcelona commentators have tended to absolve him of all blame for the club's shambolic season and made him a key figure in next season's recovery.

A neat passer with a ferocious shot, England supporters will remember his first goal for Spain scored at Old Trafford just over a year ago in a 1-0 win, just as Chelsea fans will recall the goal Silva scored against them in the Champions League two seasons ago. Spain's game is all about keeping possession and then pulling the trigger at the right moment and nobody does that better than Iniesta and Silva.

At the back both full-backs are capable of being decisive in the opposition's final third. No defender scored more goals in Spain this season than left-back Joan Capdevila and he weighed in with another for his country at the weekend.

And few full-backs are as effective going forward as Sergio Ramos. The man Real Madrid fans call Tarzan will swing into action down the right-hand side of Spain's team. Capable of lung-busting runs in the dying minutes of matches and piledriver free-kicks, his only weakness is that he also sometimes tackles like Tarzan and is liable to give away a penalty or get sent off (as he did three times last season).

If there is a weakness then the central defensive pairing of Barcelona's Carles Puyol and Valencia's Carlos Marchena is it. Marchena has played as a holding midfielder at times this season for Valencia and Puyol's best games at Barça have been as an attacking right-back. The suspicion is that neither has the discipline or positioning to cope with Europe's finest frontmen.

Peru's finest frontmen were too much for them at the weekend. Aragones described the goal that the South Americans scored against Spain as a 'defensive disaster". "Sometimes we want to play football even in our own area," said the coach who added: "We can't let in this type of goal in the tournament. It is vital that we keep clean sheets."

The consolation is that behind two of the world's more ordinary central defenders is the world's best goalkeeper. Iker Casillas drastically improved his cross-catching and defensive organisation last season under then-Madrid coach and current England manager Fabio Capello. That – combined with his second-to-none shot-stopping – has left him without peers and he will be as crucial for his country as he remains for Real Madrid.

Spain also seem to be benefiting from a genuinely impressive togetherness perhaps born of the decision not to take Casillas' Real Madrid team-mate Raul to Austria and Switzerland. Raul has banged hard on the door this season with 18 league goals but he represents an old guard of senior players phased out by Aragones who is keen to depoliticise the dressing room.

"Players feel comfortable together this time. There are more things in common than differences," says Liverpool keeper Jose Reina of the new-found harmony. And Spain have also been favoured by the draw which has kept them away from Italy, the Netherlands and France – all conveniently lumped together in one group.

Not that getting out of the group has historically been a problem for them. Such is the habitual failure at the quarter-finals stage that one of their official Euro 2008 campaign songs this year was entitled "Getting past the quarters" by Pignoise, a band fronted by former Real Madrid player Alvaro Benito.

Getting past the quarters looks well within their grasp but the extra step to greatness will take something special which brings things back to Fabregas and Torres and their final-hour attempts to find form, fitness and in the case of Fabregas a place in Aragones' starting XI. Spain will play good football in Switzerland and Austria just as they have done in almost all recent tournaments. But something extra will be needed to end those 44 years of failure.

Reina is convinced the added Premier League experience will give them an edge they have not had before. "It's good to add that experiences gained from playing in England," he says. "It could really be to our advantage if we can use it to make us that little bit more competitive."

Fabregas and Torres have epitomised that competitiveness for their clubs this season. At times Fabregas has carried Arsenal just as Torres has Liverpool during a 40-games plus season. Now they have potentially six more to play and the chance to carry Spain to glory.