Since joining Chelsea from Liverpool for £50m in January, Fernando Torres has spoken of his pleasant surprise that there are many more jokes flying about at his new club's training ground, Cobham, than there were at Melwood on Merseyside. The reverse may well be true now he has gone 10 games without scoring following the move, and the misfiring Spaniard is the butt of them all.
Joke is one of the nicer four-letter names given to Torres since Liverpool fans started burning his shirts outside Anfield on the final day of January. Winter has turned to spring, but Torres is still having a season to forget. The spectre of Andrei Shevchenko is starting to loom large, the last great vanity project of Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, that went so horribly wrong for all involved.
Chelsea arrive at Old Trafford tonight desperate for some inspiration to salvage something from their season. In some respects, this type of situation is just why Abramovich sanctioned the £50m purchase of Torres two months ago, to recruit one of the world's finest strikers who can turn a game in a flash of genius. However, in the 10 games since Torres arrived, he has barely justified a tenth of his overblown price tag. He looks laboured, out of touch and unfit. Chelsea have consistently denied there is anything physically wrong with Torres, despite the evidence on the pitch, where he no longer seems able to beat a player with a burst of acceleration, as he would do in the past.
In last week's Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, he raced Rio Ferdinand but could not run faster than a 32-year-old who was playing his first game in almost two months. Torres' alarming loss of pace raises the question whether his right knee has fully recovered from the two operations on it last year, one in January and a second in April.
The Spaniard tore a ligament in his knee in January 2010 in Liverpool's FA Cup third-round defeat against Reading and subsequently missed six weeks of the season. He returned but aggravated the same injury against Benfica in the Europa League in April and again went under the knife of surgeon Ramon Cugat in Barcelona.
He returned to play only a support role in Spain's victorious World Cup campaign, and had managed nine goals from 26 games for Liverpool before Abramovich swooped. Chelsea's manager, Carlo Ancelotti, admitted in February that Torres was not fully fit, but predicted the forward's turn of pace would return. "He is not 100 per cent but he will regain that speed, that acceleration, that people think he has lost," Ancelotti said.
Sources at Liverpool have recently raised doubts that Torres will ever recover his powerful burst of acceleration, that the knee injury has cost him dear, but Chelsea counter by saying they would not have spent £50m on a player without having carried out extensive medical checks that prove he is over the injury.
If Torres' problem is not physical, perhaps it is mental. Chelsea have denied the Spaniard is homesick for Merseyside, although Torres admitted in an interview last month "there are moments when everything seems a mess". He has been living in a flat in Chelsea, but is reported to be buying a house near the club's training ground in the Surrey stockbroker belt.
Maybe not homesick then, but certainly suffering from a loss of confidence, as befits a striker who cannot score for love nor money. The line coming from Spain is that Torres has been assured by Abramovich that the team will be built around him next season, and not to worry too much about scoring this term, which would constitute a remarkable vote of confidence in a player who has so far failed to warrant the money invested in him. You could argue that Ancelotti has done just that already, altering his tried and trusted formation to suit the new signing. However, the Italian has stopped short of following the formation adopted by the former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who went for a 4-2-3-1 system with Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and one of Albert Riera, Yossi Benayoun or Ryan Babel supplying the striker with ammunition.
The presence of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in the Chelsea squad probably means Ancelotti dare not consider such a move, as alienating both players could cause huge ructions in the squad. Benayoun, who moved to Chelsea last summer, gave an insight into the problem at the weekend. "Chelsea are used to playing with Didier, so that means playing up to his body, not playing behind the defenders into the space, which is where Fernando wants the ball," he said. "Slowly, slowly, the players have got to know him better. He is doing the right movement."
Torres claims he is also changing his game to adapt to Chelsea. He told a Spanish newspaper last month: "Drogba, Anelka and [Salomon] Kalou have been playing together for a long time so I watch how they train, their movements off the ball and how they link up. I would have loved to have scored 10 goals by now for my club but I was used to playing in a different formation. I can improve a lot here, but you have to realise that I play further away from the danger zone. I have to improve my team play and try to get to the box at the right time. Dry spells come to an end and the goals will soon arrive."
Soon, but maybe not soon enough to save Chelsea's season, and possibly Ancelotti's job with it.
* Since arriving from Liverpool in January, Fernando Torres has gone 817 minutes – 10 games for Chelsea and one for Spain – without finding the net.
* In his debut season at Liverpool, 2007-08, the striker scored 33 goals in 46 games and his longest run without scoring lasted just three games.
* Torres scored a total of 81 goals in 141 appearances for Liverpool, including eight in 20 Champions League matches.
* Since moving to Stamford Bridge, the Spaniard has managed just six shots on target in his first 10 matches for Chelsea in all competitions. Michael Lynch
SHAKHTAR V BARCELONA
* Most teams with a 5-1 first leg advantage would be confident on the eve of the second leg of victory, but the Barcelona striker Pedro has cautioned his team-mates about Shakhtar Donetsk tonight. "Although we are defending a good result it will be difficult," he said, in the knowledge that progress will mean a likely semi-final El Clasico with Real Madrid. "There are 90 minutes and anything can happen. They have a great team. We won't change our style. We'll go there to attack." Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal and Bojan are injured for the visitors, and Andres Iniesta suspended. Shakhtar, fresh from a first home defeat in 55 games, will be missing captain Dario Srna, Olexandr Kucher and former Barça defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. Razvan Rat is suspended.
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