James Lawton: Stellar show by faithful Torres eclipses Ronaldo's self-service
Tuesday 17 March 2009
Was it really just that Rafa Benitez picked up Sir Alex Ferguson, put him in his pocket, and administered the mother of all tactical tours de force? Or could it also have been of some significance that Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year, was at times made to look like an inconsequential bit player beside his potential successor Fernando Torres?
Naturally, given all the previous, the Benitez-Ferguson issue had most play, and certainly it is true that the master of Anfield's deployment of both Torres and Steven Gerrard achieved a remarkable coup in the disintegration, for a day at least, of Nemanja Vidic.
But then we can go only so far with Benitez versus Ferguson, partly because the Liverpool manager, except for urging potential allies to attack the centre of United's defence with as much resource as they can muster for the rest of the season, largely resisted the urge to give back some of the recent ridicule aimed at him by the Old Trafford commander.
Their rival achievements and strengths are well enough established to override any sweeping conclusions based on a single match between the teams, including the theory that Vidic has necessarily been diminished to the point that he is no longer one of his team's greatest strengths but suddenly a most glaring weakness.
Less speculative is the fact that Benitez has in Torres a brilliant centrepiece to all his hopes while Ferguson in Ronaldo does not. Certainly not for so much of a season which some expected to be nothing so much as an extended coronation; nor, on current evidence, in the foreseeable future.
No doubt there will be cries that this is harsh, especially when it is remembered that Ronaldo headed United beautifully into a secure position against Internazionale and then nosed United into the lead against Liverpool.
Yes, there is some danger of over-simplification, not least in the fact that if Torres received magnificent support from such as Gerrard and Javier Mascherano, Ronaldo was not exactly surrounded by optimum performance from his team-mates, either against Internazionale or Liverpool. Indeed, if you wanted to define United despair at the end of a week of considerable dishevelment it was probably the sight of Michael Carrick, arguably their most influential player this season, being withdrawn from the challenge of breaking down a Liverpool defence which had allegedly become slow enough to be charged with loitering.
However, there can be no dispute about the fact that against Real Madrid and United, Torres was nothing less than luminous as he made Fabio Cannavaro, Italy's captain and the man of the 2006 World Cup, look old and distraught, and then proceeded to undermine so severely the Player of the Year candidacy of Vidic. This was not so much a surge of form as confirmation of both superb talent and a burning competitive spirit.
Among his other woes, Ferguson could only have yearned for even hints of such commitment from his own superstar.
In a few weeks of fragile fitness Torres has become a fierce disciple of Benitez's cause. He wears a Liverpool heart on his sleeve, while, it it is difficult not to conclude, Ronaldo mostly sports one kind of advertisement or another for himself. Ferguson will no doubt bridle at this suggestion as much as the one that Benitez took him to the strategic and tactical cleaners, but the belief here is that it will be with less justification.
Whatever the undoubted cleverness of Benitez's work in Europe, where he twice left the messiah Jose Mourinho resorting to nothing more resourceful than long balls, he has never before been close to Ferguson's supreme quality of investing unbridled faith in his players.
This was most startling about Liverpool's eruption against both Real and United. Neither triumph was, whatever Benitez's most fervent admirers say, primarily about tactical pragmatism. They were the fruit of players operating at the peak of their powers. Torres and to an almost equal extent, Gerrard, played with a wonderful freedom and while Benitez can fairly claim that he has not often enough had both men available at the same time, there is also no great case for him, as there is for Ferguson, as a coach with an instinct for taking away the leash – at least until now.
For Ferguson the agony last week was the underperformance of players he has nurtured so relentlessly. While Torres flew, Ronaldo mostly fluttered. Yes, there are some considerable points to be made in defence of Ronaldo. In every game he attracts small battalions of markers. His physical resilience is remarkable, and, a glance at their records tells you, far more so than the injury-prone Spaniard. He remains, with the possible exception of Wayne Rooney, the United player most likely to produce a sublime intervention, as we saw last week when the two of them combined to snuff out the rising hopes of Mourinho.
So where is the most pressing point of comparison? It is in the sense of Torres' commitment, of a determination to inflict all that he has for the benefit of the team.
Torres and Gerrard are at present emitting it from their very pores. Lionel Messi, along with blinding virtuosity, is doing the same on behalf of Barcelona. But Ronaldo is not and this, surely, gives Ferguson quite as much concern as the fact that Vidic went missing for a day.
Ronaldo's absence, after all, has been rather more protracted – a fact illuminated by nothing so much as the passion of Fernando Torres.
Pressures of modern life no justification for rabid hatred
My colleague Sam Wallace's vivid update yesterday of the level of hatred now so commonplace on the terraces of English football deserves a better reward than the one I suspect is even now heading his way.
Unless I'm much mistaken, it is a chiding letter from a lady academic who insists that, far from being a matter for censure, even the most rabid rivalry of fans is healthy ballast for them to carry through the pressures of modern life.
I learnt this after reporting on the occasion when the then Manchester United player Alan Smith broke his leg horribly at Anfield – an occasion marked by cries of glee from the terraces and, it was reported later, attempts to obstruct the ambulance taking him to hospital.
Earlier there had been the traditional chants about Hillsborough and the Munich air crash, and before that an incident which was as bizarre as it was appalling.
Some Liverpool fans were diverted from paying their respects at the grotto dedicated to the victims of Hillsborough by the sight of United fans, flanked by police, being marched into the ground. Mourning for Hillsborough broke up amid shouts of "Munich scum".
All this seemed to be something of a mockery of the idea of sport. Soon enough, the chastisement came in. What is needed, apparently, is a proper grasp of the dynamics of British life.
The trick, apparently, is to look below the surface and see the real meaning of such behaviour. It is about the exerting of self-worth, of providing a valuable edge to the monotony of the daily round.
If you happen to be wondering, the message came via email, not a man in a white coat.
Khan must stop playing the name game if he wants world crown
Amir Khan looked a lot better at the weekend. Only once did he offer his chin to Marco Antonio Barrera, a mistake that was swiftly followed by an expression of severe regret and some work that showed the clear influence of his excellent new American trainer Freddie Roach. Under such a man, it may be possible for Khan to avoid the worst implications of being unable to take a serious punch on the chin.
However, it was clear that in serious terms the fight was virtually meaningless even before a clash of heads left a gash in Barrera's forehead that required not so much an inspired cuts man as an industrial sewing machine. Barrera, a truly great fighter in his long time-expired prime, looked old, fought old, and could do next to nothing to provide the "test" for which he was ostensibly hired.
Barrera wasn't a test. He was a name. This, of course, didn't stop one leading bookmaker offering 6-4 against Khan being crowned a world champion before the end of this year. This represents, we are told, the fighter's ascent to the "next level". No, it doesn't represent that at all. It is the grievous exploitation of the reputation of a fighter who no longer exists.
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