A moment which laid bare the tragedy of Fernando Torres almost went undetected amid the chaos of this week, which has shattered Chelsea and once again left the club to start over. In the tight, whitewashed back corridors of St Andrew's on Tuesday night, Juan Mata struggled for the most delicate way of explaining that Torres, his friend, had been offered a penalty kick to end the 24-game penury in which he had failed to score a goal and yet had, in anyone's language, bottled it. "I asked him if he wanted to take it because he provoked the penalty," Mata explained. "He said: 'I'm not first on the list...' "
If this testimony were not proof enough of how far Torres – now too traumatised to take aim from 12 yards – has fallen, then consider where he stood on the corresponding week of the football season three years ago. Liverpool fans certainly haven't forgotten because it was as good as it has got in recent years: the week in which Torres destroyed Real Madrid's Fabio Cannavaro and Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic in the space of 100 hours, as Rafael Benitez's side threatened to conquer England and Europe.
If he gets any kind of an opportunity against Stoke City this afternoon – probably from the bench – Torres will find himself nine minutes away from going 24 hours of football without a goal. He is not entirely alien to the notion of a waste of money. His parents, José and Flori, once told him of his habit, as a toddler, of throwing the little toy lorry in which he kept his pocket money out of the window of the family home in the Parque Granada barrio in Fuenlabrada, near Madrid. But a catastrophic crash like this after Roman Abramovich lavished £50m on his services? The sight of him shanking a left-foot shot three yards wide of a Birmingham City post on Tuesday raised the genuine notion that he may never find a Premier League net again.
Michael Robinson, the one-time Liverpool striker, felt his own world was about to explode when Liverpool bought him from Brighton for £250,000 in 1983 and he journeyed through eight games without a goal. "You've been bought by a big club for a big fee. Your job is to score goals. One game passes, two, three, four and you haven't scored," Robinson related recently. "Five, six: still nothing. The goalposts seem to get narrower every game. You're at an away stadium and the rivals fans sing 'What a waste of money'."
Robinson and Torres became well acquainted as the former developed his broadcasting career in Spain, and if one factor unites them it is a tendency to analyse their surroundings on the football field. At Liverpool, Torres would squat down on the turf before a game, hermetically sealed from all the sound and fury around, and survey the scene.
"I like to see the other players with the keeper and I like to see the other end and the people in the stand behind the goal," he explained. "I try to see the goal and try to think where the ball is going." But his introspection runs deeper than for most players – which tells us something about where he finds himself today. He has always been a deep thinker – he spent six months at university studying business and management before his career took off at his beloved Atletico Madrid – and has never been the kind of individual capable of brushing away expectations. The first signs of the tortured soul we now see came in the 2001-02 season when, despite Atletico's promotion back to La Liga, he added only six goals to the giddy heights of his debut campaign, the previous year.
"I'd had a very bad year after all the expectation everybody had about me," he said. And though he was elevated to the captaincy of Atleti at the age of 20, the responsibility did not sit well again. The club's position in the shadow of Real Madrid bred a victim mentality at that time. The world owed them a favour and Torres was not able to break out of that culture.
"It was all the things that you had to do as a captain off the pitch which made it harder for me," was how he assessed it when he arrived at Anfield. "I had to help all of the new signings settle in by helping them find a new house, new car, then go for meetings. I didn't have as much time to think about myself and my own game."
The Torres Robinson knew from those days – part prodigy, part folk-hero – was one punished by his club's own mid-table mediocrity. "When Fernando played for Atletico Madrid, they probably only created three shots at goal per game. Because Fernando played on his own, if he missed he received all of the blame. It was so unfair to place such a ridiculous amount of pressure on one so young." But the Torres he encountered at Liverpool was one released from that expectation.
L4 hardly brought the anonymity of Fuenlabrada – the Madrid suburb famous only for putting skirts on the green stick-man illuminated at pedestrian crossings in the interests of gender equality – but others operated on his level and in one particular soul-mate, Steven Gerrard, he had someone to read his footballing mind.
There were some halcyon days from August 2007, though the deteriorating physiological picture – knee, groin and hamstring problems began tearing at him – was arguably less significant than the psychological one. Gerrard's own extended absences through injury, allied to the struggles which Benitez began to encounter at a warring Anfield, left Torres burdened again. His goals would save Liverpool but his all-round game rarely dragged the club into the light.
Antonio Sanz, Torres' agent, told the Financial Times last month that the striker was "an intelligent, cerebral man who is neither corrupted by success nor destroyed by failure. His family is his refuge and he is not the kind of person who likes to show himself off."
That raised the question of whether this player might actually think too much. Lionel Messi's thought processes create no such danger, though he is a home-bird, too. The paper put the question to a number of sports psychologists, who seemed to agree that there was a way back from this paralysing period of self-doubt for Torres. "That level of athletic talent is hard to suppress. My prediction is that he's not done yet," said one recognised cognitive behavioural therapist. Santiago Solari, the former Argentina and Atletico midfielder, was less optimistic. "When a player has been at the peak of his form in a career and then goes downhill – well, I've never seen a player return to his best in those circumstances," he said. Sanz did not dismiss out of hand the notion of Torres seeking psychological help.
Though Abramovich wants Torres in starting line-ups, being afforded a fresh chance, it is hard to avoid the impression that his future lies outside of west London now. His decision to join Chelsea was a fundamentally bad one. In the chaos of the club's January spending spree of last year, he might have seen that this might be a rocky ride, though he had an itch about a lack of trophies – born of his barren career at Atletico – to scratch. The road back to Liverpool seems closed off now – though that club's fans would welcome him back tomorrow – with Gerrard's own capacity to reach the heights of three years ago open to some question and Benitez long gone.
The road home to Fuenlabrada may actually be the one he takes, if Atletico are so flush with cash should they sell Radamel Falcao this summer that Diego Simeone can bring Torres back.
For some who observe Liverpool closest, the memory of Torres which burns most intensely dates from that frenzied deadline day in January last year when he and his advisers sat on the couches in the foyer of the club's Melwood training ground, preparing to take their leave. They could have reached out and touched the replica European Cup which has pride of place there, as they finally stood up and left.
Such were the riches that Torres left for and has not found. Silverware would still be nice but, judging the way things look today, he would settle for any kind of silver lining.
Decline and fall: Torres' goal rate
0.1 goals per game for Chelsea
0.57 goals per game for Liverpool
0.37 goals per game for Atletico Madrid
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