James Lawton: Touch of tragedy haunts man who missed shot at redemption

Rooney was a one-man range of most of the football possibilities

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The Independent Football

There is a point when even a mere football crisis begins to brush against a form of human tragedy, at least in the matter of a man losing touch with something that was at the centre of his life.

Fernando Torres was such a man once again when Manchester United tightened their hold on the top of English football.

He had the chance to redeem some of the £50m splashed on his services by Chelsea last January – and had he pulled it off it would have been the most defiant and dramatic resistance so far to the revived force of the Old Trafford club. United were three goals up when Torres rewarded his 33-year-old coach Andre Villas-Boas with a goal that signalled hope. He then had to chance to strike another devastating blow – and missed.

Villas-Boas, moving along his revolution quite briskly in the face of such devastation, had replaced Frank Lampard with Nicolas Anelka and was rewarded instantly when the Frenchman did something that might just have given the young coach's predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti, a breath of life had he done it with some frequency last winter and spring.

Anelka released Torres so sweetly that a goal, even one entrusted to the nightmare vulnerability of a player who once made the production of them pretty much an art form, was a formality the moment it left his foot. Torres jubilantly scored only his second goal since his £50m move to Stamford Bridge last January, and when he did this, so effortlessly, with such a sense that it was his right, it didn't seem too fanciful to imagine that scales might have been removed from his eyes.

But, we learnt soon enough, it was – fanciful that is – and to the point of systematic cruelty.

The extent of it was evident enough before and after the strike that Villas-Boas's body language suggested he believed it might just sweep both a player and a team back on to a new level of confidence. That was too much to invest in one moment of perfect intuition by Anelka and execution by Torres, and we should have been warned about this when Torres threw away a gift from Anderson in the early going.

There were other moments of Torres anguish before that final agony of the missed goal which might have given Chelsea a chance to do something about a growing imbalance of power at the top of the English game.

Yet there was an extraordinary truth about this game in which the spontaneous combustion of such as Nani and Ashley Young, and the sheer craft and imagination of Rooney, threatened to work all kinds of devastation on Chelsea's self-regard. It was that Villas-Boas had come with a game plan, and elements of exceptional ability, that at times made Chelsea at least as persuasive as United, especially in midfield.

However, there is something about United this season that seems to rip away the normal pressures on any freedom of football expression. Nani and Rooney and Young, and not least the recent arrivals Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, are capable of conspiracies of optimism that can be breathtaking in their composure and bite.

Rooney was a one-man range of most of the football possibilities. He might easily have scored his third hat-trick of the season. He did an excellent impression of John Terry's penalty miss when the teams met in the 2008 Champions League in Moscow after Nani had been brought down in pursuit of his second hugely extrovert goal of the afternoon. He seemed particularly keen on fashioning a goal for his young compadre Javier Hernandez and when the young Mexican hobbled away after a late, cruel tackle by Ashley Cole, which should have received a red card, Dimitar Berbatov – a name from the past, it seemed, so swift have been the new currents coursing through Old Trafford – became the next beneficiary. The gift to Berbatov was so perfect the Bulgarian had only to apply minimum force to get the ball past Petr Cech but instead he pushed the ball limply.

It was one of the last curiosities of a game which flowed so swiftly from one possibility of attacking mayhem to another. Given the force of United's early impact, the goals of Smalling and Nani, which though tarnished by legitimate claims for offside by Chelsea spoke of a team filled with the belief that they could score more or less whenever they pleased, Chelsea might have been tempted to sue for surrender. This was especially so when Rooney coolly stepped through the rubble of their defence to score the third after Jones and Nani had mounted fresh assaults.

Yet Chelsea can plainly grow somewhat stronger. Anelka and Torres made the sweetest of combinations and, who knows, the horror of that last miss by Torres might just be borne away sooner or later by the creative force of such new men as Juan Mata and Raul Meireles – and Anelka, for as long as he stays.

It is one hope, anyway, at the end of a day when Fernando Torres might just have rescued a little bit of another life.