Torres: Towering promise of El Niño sets up Rooney-style move

Loyalty test for Atletico prodigy as goal-happy Spaniards suddenly become overachievers
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"One Country. One Goal." The slogan emblazoned on Spain's battle bus, the swanky coach which ferries Fernando Torres, David Villa and their colleagues from their base in the Ruhr to the match venues, and later to heavily guarded hotels, already needs to be updated.

Let's get the "one country" part out of the way first. At the heart of the side there are Catalans (Carles Puyol) and Basques (Xabi Alonso) for whom the very concept of Spain is debatable. Johan Cruyff's time at Barcelona led him to claim the national XI would always be weakened by the clash of regional cultures, identities and political traditions.

But it was the "one goal" bit that looked decidedly conservative after Luis Aragones' team, a paradigm of unity, overran Ukraine and whetted the appetite for tomorrow's Group H meeting with Tunisia. They scored four, with three for Torres and Villa. Here was a victory - and a new, youthful attacking partnership - to hold out the promise that Spain's clichéd tag of underachievers may also require rapid revision.

Torres, 22, is something of a Wayne Rooney figure in La Liga. Dubbed El Niño ("The Child"), he first came to the attention of Manchester United, Arsenal and the other Premiership clubs that covet him in 2001, when he was player of the tournament as Spain won the European Under-16 title in England. A month after turning 20, he became his country's youngest scorer, and Ara-gones soon drooled: "He never gets two goals the same."

In a further similarity with the self-proclaimed Everton fanatic who decamped to Old Trafford, Torres professes lifelong allegiance to Atletico Madrid. He has played for them from the age of 10. The club, however, will not be in next season's Champions' League. Finishing 10th in La Liga, they did not even qualify for the Uefa Cup. The prodigy's loyalty appears certain to come under strain after the finals.

Atletico may not go through managers as feverishly as when Jesus Gil was firing and hiring, but Javier Aguirre has just arrived from Osasuna. On the evidence of Leipzig, when Torres started by twice skinning defenders as if they were training-ground dummies and finished with a fulminating goal to round off an early contender for the best move of the tournament, the former Mexico coach may struggle to hold him.

Torres maintains he will stay. Yet money talks, and his value is already estimated at a Rooney-esque £26 million. The sense of release from carrying a humdrum team was evident as he reflected on his performance against Ukraine. "I had a bad year at my club when nothing seemed to go right," he said. "By luck, I seem to have hit great form now."

Good fortune, which Spain certainly enjoyed in the form of a goal from a deflected free-kick and a dubious penalty award, is only part of the story. By pairing Villa with Torres - which meant dropping Real Madrid's Raul, captain of club and country - the early signs are that Aragones has a duo who bring finishing power, high energy and mutual understanding to a team whose technical excellence had never been in doubt.

Villa's employers, Valencia, will be in Europe's premier club competition come the autumn. They were propelled there by his 25 goals, the most by a Spaniard in last season's league, 12 more than Torres and one better than the club record set 29 years ago by Mario Kempes. As with Atletico, however, it is a moot point whether they will be able to hang on to their £8m recruit from Zaragoza after this tournament.

The 24-year-old from Asturias, a target for Rafael Benitez in his first season at Liverpool, wanted to give up football at 14 and become a miner like his father. Villa Snr persuaded him to persevere and he came to prominence with his local club, Sporting Gijon.

A busy, bustling forward, good with both feet and a true team player, he has blossomed this year, scoring a six-minute hat-trick for Valencia against Bilbao in April and doubling his haul for Spain with two on his World Cup debut.

The Spanish strikeforce will be expected to increase their haul against Tunisia, even though Aragones pointedly describes the North Africans as "better than Ukraine". His team are unbeaten in 23 games since Euro 2004, and Barcelona's Xavi is fit and firing the ammunition for the two young bulls. Should results go as predicted, they will meet Brazil in the quarter-finals, the stage beyond which they have never progressed.

Amid the euphoria of their best-ever start, it was left to Puyol to put Spain's prospects in perspective. "We weren't such a bad side before," the captain said, "and we're not such a good one now."

Like the bus slogan, two propositions. For Torres and Villa, the aim is again to refute the second.


Philipp Lahm (Germany)

The Bayern Munich full-back scored the first goal of this tournament, a wonder strike against Costa Rica. It epitomised his start to Germany 2006, and he has looked calm and assured since.

Arjen Robben (Holland)

The Chelsea winger was simply superb against Serbia & Monte-negro, scoring and creating many chances. He was equally devastating against the Ivory Coast and played a major part in Ruud van Nistelrooy's winning goal.

Carles Puyol (Spain)

Confident, dominant, at ease. Barcelona's captain was awesome against Ukraine, when Andriy Shevchenko barely had a touch. Puyol set up Spain's fourth goal with a pirouette past a defender, a one-two and a chest pass into the path of Fernando Torres for him to volley home.

Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina)

Consistent but not spectacular against the Ivory Coast, the right- midfielder was outstanding against Serbia & Montenegro, scoring twice. He also played a part in Argentina's unforgettable second goal, which involved nine players, 24 passes and a finish by Esteban Cambiasso.

Tomas Rosicky (Czech Rep)

Arsenal's new midfielder gave an example of his talent with two spectacular goals against the United States: first a swerving right-foot shot from 25 yards and then a burst of speed and strength from midfield for the second.

Tim Cahill (Australia)

The midfielder came on as a substitute in the first game against Japan with Australia a goal down. With six minutes remaining he scrambled an equaliser, and in the 89th minute scored the winner with a lovely turn and shot into the top corner. Inspiring.

Matt Denver