Don't listen to the sheep on Torres
There is an old Scottish parable that I want to introduce and admit that, in this instance, it's aimed at me.
Mr. and Mrs. McIdiot have an idiot son, Jimmy McIdiot. Against all odds he's accepted to the military academy at Sandhurst in England, and it's not to peel potatoes. Somehow, even more spectacularly against the odds, he's allowed to graduate despite being worse than inept. Mr. and Mrs. McIdiot attend the passing out ceremony. Seated up in the bleachers, they admire their son in his military finery marching around the parade ground with his fellow graduates. After a few moments, Mrs. McIdiot turns to her husband and proudly says, "Look! Everybody else is out of step except our Jimmy!"
All I hope is that I'm deliberately out of step and not simply failing to notice there's a reason everybody else is marching militarily in one direction.
The reason for my discord with the world is Fernando Torres.
My proposition is this: Instead of bleating with the sheep that the 50 million-pound man isn't scoring and therefore cannot be considered for Spain at the European championships this summer, I take the opposite stance. I think he must go, unless something atrocious happens to his performances between now and then.
What angers me is that some people -- whether media critics or fans using social media -- simply get the bit between their teeth and off they go on a rant which allows little room for emerging information.
The acceptable part of what the sheep are bleating concerns strikers like Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao) and Roberto Soldado (Valencia CF). Each of them is in the zone. If their patch were any more purple, you could squeeze it, bottle it and sell it as blackcurrant cordial. Apparently that is sufficient for some critics to want to dump Torres in favor of these two.
Llorente is a composite of everything Spain needs: technically very able, immense in the air, mobile and physically intimidating. After taking a break to rest and heal his knee right before Christmas, he has scored nine times in all competitions so far in 2012. Llorente is a well-loved guy in the Spain squad and had an important cameo role during the 2010 World Cup both on and off the pitch. Put in a nutshell, he possesses an enormous amount of the gifts that once made Torres worth the 50 million pounds Chelsea paid for him (albeit Llorente has never had the same blinding speed which was part of El Nino's original repertoire).
Soldado is a crafty, hard-working striker in a rich vein of form. Unless he gets injured, he'll finally be given game time when Spain plays Venezuela in Malaga at the end of this month. And he'll deserve it, too. His goal-per-game ratio of 12-to-15 in the Champions League remains exceptional.
Now, I make no bones about previously writing that Torres should be nervously looking over his shoulder as Llorente and Soldado continue to impress. And, to an extent, that remains true. Torres' starting place is patently under direct threat. Goals are fundamental to a footballer like him, but whether it is Torres himself who scores them or winning goals that his team scores is something of a moot point.
In reviewing Torres' performances and predicting what he should be doing this summer, I think there are several things that are important to note.
First, Juan Mata's absolutely blistering form in England makes him a certainty for the Spain squad if he remains fit. Manager Vicente del Bosque immediately has a bonus becaues the understanding between Mata and Torres has flourished marvelously at Chelsea. The extraordinary goal Mata scored against Manchester United this past weekend -- a volley rifled past David de Gea -- was "made in Spain." Torres centered from wide right and thus emulated the majority of the goal assists he's provided this season -- most have been for Mata.
Chelsea's statisticians credit their striker with having created or helped cause 12 goals in all competitions this season. Not bad.
It reminds me of Euro 2008, when the David Villa-Torres partnership sprang to life. Nominally, Torres was the senior partner, the No. 9, the center forward. But partly through Torres' assists and unselfish running, Villa hit a hat trick against Russia. I watched how, until Villa got injured, Torres was perfectly happy to play the role of the "second striker," the "domestique" who works hard to create time and space for the key scorer.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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Torres' supporting performance was instinctive, not an order from then-manager Luis Aragones, and it spoke highly of the Madrileno's understanding of forward play and teamwork.
As Villa has streaked past Torres' goal-per-game ratio for Spain, their on-pitch relationship has remained rock solid. Indeed, Villa has always been far likelier to score when Torres is in the frontline with him.
Likewise at Chelsea, the bigger picture is clear: Torres is compensating for his lack of personal production in front of goal with vision and generosity in his ability to link up with Mata for the benefit of the team. Torres is dragging his morale, confidence and ambition up from his bootstraps -- you can see the effort he's putting into his game, making runs up top and never hiding, irrespective of his level of form -- which I predict will inspire del Bosque's confidence as far as selection for Euro 2012 is concerned.
The goals aren't there yet, but if Torres continues this way, they will be.
If you have a problem, the first thing required is acceptance -- remedies and the fightback stem from that. It appears to me that Torres is well on his way. Last week, he said to Chelsea TV: "At the beginning of the season I went through a hard moment. I wasn't playing, things were wrong and I went eight games without playing. I had never been in this situation before. The only thing that gave me hope was the support of the people. To hear the fans sing your name is the best feeling you can have. I remember a game against Wolves and I was on the bench, but the fans were still singing my name. I've been lucky to live very good moments but that game, when I was in the middle of 'nothing,' is perhaps the best memory I have in all my career."
Imagine what that tells you. Torres has scored the winning goal in junior international tournaments, the winning goal in Spain's first international trophy (2008) for 44 years, and was the absolute darling of the Kop while at Liverpool. But the best memory of his career is the Chelsea fans roaring encouragement while he was stuck on the bench. It speaks of a guy who needs to get his confidence back.
And while overall Torres has struggled at Chelsea, it should be noted that his Champions League record with the club this season is fine: five matches, two goals and three goal assists. And let me tell you that had Valencia's keeper, Diego Alves, not played absolutely beyond belief when the Blues traveled to the Mestalla, Torres would have had a hat trick that day.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version will be available in paperback from Feb. 17 and can be preordered at BackPage Press.
Torres is articulate, intelligent and well-liked in the Spain squad. He is not tainted by the bitterness that the Clasicos have brought to del Bosque's group. If Spain is lucky, Villa may well be back from injury in time for Euro 2012 -- which means the coach would have another fantastic player partnership to bank on, in addition to Torres-Mata.
For me, there are sufficient signs that Torres is rounding back into form. Del Bosque doesn't need to pick his squad for a good while yet, and even if the February friendly against Venezuela doesn't yield a goal or an appearance for Torres, he is, at least, playing and beginning to look both physically and mentally refreshed at Chelsea.
One threat to Torres' progress is obviously Didier Drogba. The two don't seem to pair well. Drogba is playing in the African Cup of Nations; the physical and mental state the Ivorian returns in will heavily determine which of the two center forwards gets more game time between now and the end of the English season.
There remains time for Torres to fall in love with scoring again. But whether he hits five or 15 goals between February and the end of May, he is playing well enough at the moment to join del Bosque, Iker Casillas, Xavi & Co. at the European championships. He's certainly in my squad. And I don't care in which direction the sheep are marching or how loudly they are bleating.
Copa del Rey
I find it risible that people are starting to ask whether the fact that FC Barcelona is sitting seven points behind Real Madrid in La Liga signifies the end of an era at Camp Nou. Nonsense. But should Valencia manage to oust the Spanish and European champions from the Copa del Rey semifinal Wednesday, the questions will increase.
It's an interesting tie, balanced at 1-1 despite the fact that Pep Guardiola's team should have won the first leg by two or perhaps three goals.
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Valencia hits a chord with me and should with many Catalans. As the fantastic midfielder Gaizka Mendieta, who played for both teams, said the other day, "We had Barca's measure when I was at the Mestalla." Valencia consistently humiliated Louis van Gaal's Barcelona: Between 1999 and 2002, Los Che beat them in the Copa, the Supercopa, the Champions League semifinal and then inflicted a 4-2 win at Camp Nou, which ended Joan Gaspart's presidential regime, ushering in Joan Laporta and unparalleled success for the Catalans since then.
Guardiola played in the majority of those defeats and will view Valencia with deep suspicion. Barcelona, injuries notwithstanding, should win, but there is an eternal rule that when an opponent is allowed off the ropes, particularly a well-equipped one like Valencia, there is serious danger of being caught cold.
Fans of Los Che should cross their fingers, Cules should bite their nails, and the rest of us should stand back and savor.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.