Torres: 'Rafa either wants to improve me or kill me'

As Fernando Torres tells his life story in a new book, the lauded striker speaks to Ian Herbert about his life in Madrid and on Merseyside – and reveals the intensity of his relationship with Benitez
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The Independent Online

Just before it all starts tomorrow, Fernando Torres will, as he always does, drop down on to his haunches and crouch for a minute or more.

It will be just him and the turf and a small box of silence at Stamford Bridge, hermetically sealed from all the sound and the fury outside it. "I don't know why I started but I always do it before the games," Torres says of this habit. "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. I try to see the goal and try to think where the ball is going."

Seeing the goal is a task which, taken in its literal sense, Torres hardly need prepare for. The eight goals he has placed into a net this season – a tally it took him until 1 February, and the arrival at Anfield of Luiz Felipe Scolari's feckless Chelsea side, to reach in the last campaign – are part of a new-found opulence in Rafael Benitez's Liverpool, whose 22 league goals in the season's first seven weeks represent their most prolific return since 1895. But there are other, more substantial goals to go in search of. Liverpool have not collected a piece of silverware of any description for three long years and the prospect of extending that to a fourth would, Torres sees all too clearly, be a catastrophe for the Red quarters of Merseyside and beyond.

"To go another season and have four years without a trophy would be a massive blow for Liverpool," he says, in his excellent English which is still more Spanish than Scouse. "Three years without a trophy is too much for Liverpool, and especially the Premier League. We have to improve. We really have to win [one]."

He is not the only Liverpool player to betray a yearning for silverware. The same feelings left Pepe Reina, Torres' great ally at Anfield, reflecting last month that the title was not a "realistic objective". But Torres has been here before, on the outside looking in with more than a little envy at other people's trophy cabinets. After an upbringing in Fuenlabrada, a small city on the outskirts of Madrid famous across Spain for putting skirts on the green stick-man illuminated at pedestrian crossings in the interests of gender equality, Torres found himself on the receiving end of the capital city's mighty football inequality, attempting to help Atletico Madrid match their neighbours, Real. Torres, one part prodigy, one part folk hero at Estadio Vincente Calderon, was worn down by the side's overreliance on him in the end. "Any team has to be built on collective responsibility but at Atletico I had too much and I had to take on the responsibility of others, too," Torres revealed last season.

Though it seems like a case of history repeating itself – the dependence on Torres and Steven Gerrard is as profound as it ever was at Anfield – then Torres has at least found solace from a compatriot who has experienced the same. "I am still waiting for a trophy at club level, and I want one, but I am still young; I am just 25," Torres says. "I was talking with Carles Puyol at Barcelona some years ago and he said he was 23-24 at Barcelona and hadn't won a single trophy, but now he has plenty of them." Ten, to be precise. But while Puyol's wait for silverware lasted six years, Torres is now into his ninth club campaign, with the taste of success which last year's European Championship brought with Spain only accentuating the sense of what has been missing with his clubs.

For all that, though, there is something in the Torres character which makes these proletarian struggles quite natural ones. He might have the accoutrements of the superstar – including the £130,000-a-week salary which this summer's new five-year contract brought and the personal website which confidently places No 9 between his first and last names – but the prevailing sense which El Niño: My Story, his new autobiography, leaves is how Torres and a working-class city like Liverpool were made for each other. He chose Liverpool, he says, "because of the mentality of the club. It's a working club. Always, Liverpool never had the same money as other teams and always is winning trophies like the bigger ones."

Everton fans do not seem to take the same delight in ruining a Torres night out that Real's did, either. "I couldn't do almost anything in Madrid when I was there," he recalls. "Madrid is a big city and I wasn't playing for the strongest team, so 80 per cent of the people there are Real fans. It was hard just to walk or go to a restaurant or the cinema because people do not have the same respect there that they do here for players. If I went somewhere with friends [in Madrid] it was really difficult. Here in Liverpool, I can do almost everything I want to do. I can walk in the park, or to the Albert Dock. The people recognise you but they have a lot of respect for a player. The quality of life is the main thing for me."

It is as well, perhaps, that his preferred days out are not to Manchester – where his career would have taken him had Sir Alex Ferguson has his way – but to the more Liverpool-friendly locations of Chester and Formby. (A 99 Flake with raspberry sauce, the book tell us, is his preference at the seaside.) Perhaps it is also the working-class outlook which makes some of Benitez's interminable ways more tolerable to him than they were to the Liverpool squad the manager inherited in 2004. Torres has more than demonstrated his technical abilities – the quick foot-to-foot transfer and his habit of feigning lack of interest in a ball before pinching it from a defender, which helped him score the 33 goals which, in 2007-08, made him the highest foreign goalscorer in a debut season in English football history. But still the manager obsesses about improvements.

One of the excellent anecdotes in El Niño concerns a day when, after Torres had scored twice in Liverpool's magnificent 2-0 win over Chelsea in February, he was tying up his boots ready to head out to the Melwood training pitch. The weekend papers had been full of stories about Torres being set to become a father and he takes up the story: "'Congratulations, Fernando,' Rafa says. 'Thanks, boss,' I reply. I assumed he was congratulating me on the pregnancy and I paused, expecting the obvious next question. I was wrong. 'Just as we'd anticipated, attacking the near post really paid off yesterday,' he said. 'You got ahead of the defender into that space we talked about, which gave you an advantage and allowed you to beat Cech with a header.'"

Typical Benitez – and a story Glen Johnson should have read before he arrived at Anfield in July. Johnson assumed that Benitez would appreciate his talents, having paid £17m for him – then spent three weeks listening to him detailing his faults. "Rafa spends time with everyone whether they are doing well or badly," Torres says in the manager's defence. "He is always pushing the players because it is the best way to improve, and you can say to yourself he wants to improve me or he wants to kill me, but I can tell you, he does want the best for every single player."

The spending limitations are all too apparent at Liverpool, whose American owners are seeking equity partners to help offset their debt, leading Reina to reflect that "teams like Manchester United have lots of players who can tip the balance; we haven't got the individuals". But Torres has a more positive philosophy. "It is easier when you have money to spend on top players, because you have more quality in the squad and more chances," he says. "But it's not always like that. Liverpool won the Champions League four years ago with just a strong squad, so we have different strengths. We have to do it another way." He believes Liverpool can experience the same effect from a first trophy that United enjoyed after winning the Premier League in 1993. "We know that when the first trophy comes we can win plenty of trophies. The next one will come soon," he says.

Having Torres and Gerrard fit to play together more often than the 17 times in the league they were in tandem last season is critical. So far they have already played together in every league game. And victory over Chelsea tomorrow will be a psychological asset. "It will give us plenty of confidence going into the international break. We will be able to rest a little bit and come back feeling like a strong team. If you can beat Chelsea away then you know you can beat any team in England and in Europe. We need to win these kind of games to be stronger." Such are the thoughts that will consume the mind of the crouching tiger who, if you look closely, you will see down there – just about pitch level – as the Stamford Bridge clock ticks up to 4pm tomorrow.

Torres: El Niño (HarperSport, £18.99)

Is Torres the best striker in the world? We ask the experts

Joe Royle

Former Everton manager.

He is certainly a contender, up there with [Didier] Drogba and [Wayne] Rooney. They are all very good. Torres has tremendous pace, and can score spectacular goals as well as 'bread and butter' ones, and he can score from three yards or 30 yards. He leads the line well, bringing others into play, and is also fairly young and can still improve further.

Phil Thompson

Expert on Sky Sports' Gillette Soccer Saturday.

I think he is the best in the world at the moment. As a centre-back what frightened me most was pace. Other players have it but Torres can go both sides of a defender, so even if you try and force him on to his weaker side, he can still cause problems. His pace is all the difference. The only player I can think of who's similar would be Thierry Henry, in terms of pace and lethal finishing – but Torres is better with his left.

Mark Lawrenson

BBC Match of the Day pundit.

He absolutely is the best. If you did a straw poll of the top 16 clubs in Europe, he would definitely be the best. I don't consider Ronaldo or [Lionel] Messi to qualify as I don't see them as strikers. He often plays up there on his own, he has pace, power, he can slow defenders down and then speed past them. He is a team player as well. He reminds me of Ian Rush in that he is a bony figure and you can see when defenders hit him that they know it! Overall it's just his ability to score goals from absolutely anywhere, he's great in the air, and he can make his own goals out of nothing.

Adrian Chiles

BBC Match of the Day 2 presenter.

On current form I think he probably is the best in the world. There's no defender that would want to go up against him. I can't believe there is a striker anywhere that's going to say: 'You know what, that Torres, I'm better than him'.

Craig Brown

Former Scotland manager.

Yes. Ahead of the improving [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. He's not quite as good as Henrik Larsson and Gabriel Batistuta, the best of the last 15 to 20 years, but he's still young.

Gerry Armstrong

Former Northern Ireland international, pundit for Sky Sports' La Liga.

Yes, he has all the attributes. He has pace and can score with either foot. He is a nightmare for defenders and has still five years to reach his peak.

Interviews by Chris Hewett, James Mariner and Glenn Moore

El Niño in numbers

*GOALS RECORD

Atletico Madrid

2001-02: Played: 36 Goals 6

2002-03: Played: 29 Goals: 13

2003-04: Played: 35 Goals: 20

2004-05: Played: 38 Goals: 16

2005-06: Played: 36 Goals: 13

2006-07: Played: 36 Goals: 15

Liverpool

2007-08: Played: 33 Goals: 24

2008-09: Played: 24 Goals: 14

2009-10 (so far) Played 9 Goals: 8

Spain

2003-2009: Played 70 Goals: 23

17 Became the youngest player in Atletico history when he made his debut aged 17 in May 2001 against Leganes

19 The club's youngest ever captain at the age of 19 in 2003-04

1 Torres scored the winner in Spain's 1-0 victory over Germany in the Euro 2008 final. This is the only piece of silverware he has won so far

46 Will become the fastest player to 50 goals for Liverpool if he gets four more in the next 15 matches

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