The received wisdom from Spain is that Sir Alex Ferguson's concern about Fernando Torres' failure to score 20 goals in a single season for Atletico Madrid is the reason why the player now plies his trade at the western point of the M62, rather than its eastern extreme. Rafael Benitez would prefer Liverpool fans to believe it was down to his powers of persuasion in a series of telephone calls.
The ramifications of the Manchester United manager's decision not to buy the player have certainly played out before his eyes. Torres has scored in each of the last three encounters between Liverpool and Manchester United, who meet at Old Trafford tomorrow lunchtime. More, after a period of no wins in six over their most inveterate enemy before the Spaniard's arrival, Liverpool have won three out of six with El Niño in the ranks.
Ferguson wriggled around the statistics yesterday morning. Asked if Torres understood how to beat Nemanja Vidic – dismissed in three of their last four meetings – more than any other striker, he declared that he did not "see that". The manager's conclusion was that "when you analyse all the goals we've maybe made a couple of mistakes defensively. These fixtures fluctuate a little bit."
The question heading into tomorrow's game is whether Torres is actually going to rediscover the form to damage United, as he has done so brutally before. Jamie Redknapp's declaration after his anaemic display in the 0-0 draw at Birmingham last Sunday that Torres was "diabolical" has had the peculiar effect of galvanising opinion of all shades behind the striker who, before talk of his decline goes any further, happened to deliver Liverpool their only win of the Premier League campaign so far with an outstanding strike from the blue against West Bromwich Albion a week earlier. His contribution in that game was otherwise minimal. One goal can change opinions.
Fitness is the overriding problem for a player who looks a universe away from the individual who tormented United at Anfield 11 months ago. Peter Brukner, Liverpool's new head of sports science, said at the start of this month that Torres would not be fully fit "for another three or four months." It was a fairly extraordinary statement – four months' recovery time for a player who underwent surgery last spring – but one which reflected a growing feeling at the club that Torres has shouldered too much of a burden for too long. Kenny Dalglish, who is better placed than most at Anfield to discuss the player, declares in his new autobiography, Dalglish in his own words, that Torres has been "overworked" in the last three years.
"My long held belief is that Fernando has been overworked," Dalglish writes. "He has not had a break for three years. His summers have been filled with Euro 2008, the Confederations Cup in 2009 and the World Cup. The constant demands have taken their toll. Fernando is a thoroughbred footballer and nobody would exhaust a racehorse like that. All this relentless football caught up with him and Liverpool paid the price in 2010. His unforgiving schedule suggests, I think, that Fernando's problems will continue and I fear for him this season."
Dalglish qualified that yesterday. "I did not say Torres would struggle," he insisted. "It is a great compliment to him that when he has a bad game it is such a highlight and makes a headline in a newspaper." But it is hard to escape the conclusion that Liverpool's financial problems are also affecting the 26-year-old. The Liverpool ownership soap opera continued apace yesterday, as Tom Hicks pursued another refinancing deal with GSO Capital Partners, part of the Blackstone Group, as the deadline for refinancing with the Royal Bank of Scotland looms. This is not how the future was sold to Torres when he committed his immediate future to the club in July. "It's fundamental that new owners come in and make the team more competitive," Torres told the Spanish radio station Cadena Cope at the start of the month.
Ferguson yesterday dismissed suggestions that financial woes may be contributing to a fallow period at Anfield, landing a final swipe on Benitez as he did. "In the last regime they spent a lot of money on players, far more than Manchester United did," he said about the former Liverpool manager. "They had a huge squad of players so I don't know if that [the financial situation] is anything to do with it."
However, Liverpool's inability to keep up financially, symbolised by the failure to sign West Ham's Carlton Cole as a back-up striker on transfer deadline day, has placed a weight of personal responsibility on Torres – which in the end he simply could not bear at Atletico – and has surely contributed to the effect Dalglish describes.
Torres, one-part prodigy, one-part folk hero at Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon, was worn down by the side's over-reliance on him. "He had too many things weighing down on him, responsibility of the dressing room, the administration, the fans and the press," his manager from that time, Javier Aguirre, has since reflected. "For better or for worse he had to be involved with everyone and everything, whereas in Liverpool he is just one person."
It just has not turned out that way. Torres carries Liverpool as he did as Atletico's captain, while his injury record over two seasons has limited his potential to develop as a player. The former Juventus and Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro suggested last year that Torres needs to improve his technique in one-against-one situations. "Torres relies on speed but when you have a defender in front of you, you have to go past him and not through speed alone," Cannavaro said. "Take Cristiano Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi, Brazil's Ronaldo in his better moments. They home in on you, skip past and they're away. This is still missing in Torres. His best weapons remain bursts of speed in 10 to 15 metres." But personal development is more achievable at a club like United and Chelsea, where there is strength in numbers.
For now, the incentive of another win over the manager who missed out on him may be enough for Dalglish's so-called exhausted "racehorse". "I was watching him against Birmingham and he wasn't flying but he was still dangerous," Ryan Giggs reflected darkly. "He's a world-class player. When he gets chances he puts them away so we have to be more wary of that than ever."
Torres v United: How the striker has prospered against ferguson's defence
* Liverpool trail Manchester United 69-60 in head-to-head meetings, although since the arrival of Fernando Torres in 2007 the Merseyside team's record has taken a turn for the better.
* In the six league matches before Torres' arrival, the Reds took just one point from United. However, since the Spaniard joined, Liverpool have won three of their six meetings – Torres playing in five – including a memorable 4-1 win at Old Trafford in March 2009 which Torres has termed "one of my favourite days in the Liverpool shirt".
16 Dec 2007: Liverpool 0 Man Utd 1
Torres makes little impact as lone striker.
23 Mar 2008: Man Utd 3 Liverpool 0
Booked after 44 mins as United run riot.
14 Mar 2009: Man Utd 1 Liverpool 4
Scores equaliser to inspire famous win.
25 Oct 2009: Liverpool 2 United 0
Slots home opening goal in front of Kop.
21 Mar 2010: United 2 Liverpool 1
Gives Liverpool the lead with a fifth-minute header.Reuse content