Can Liverpool's record signing live up to expectations at Anfield?
Fernando Torres is used to the weight of expectation on his shoulders. He joined Atlético Madrid, his boyhood team, at 11, rejected an offer from Real Madrid at 12, had a €3m buy-out clause at 15, made his debut at 17, captained the club at 19 and won his first cap before he was 20. He alone has carried the hopes of one of Spain's biggest clubs for seven long years - and still he is only 23. Now he has to pull on the No9 shirt worn by the man the Kop called God and prove that Liverpool's manager is not insane.
By splashing £27m on Torres, Rafael Benítez has almost doubled the amount spent on Liverpool's previous record signing, Djibril Cissé, making "The Kid" the most expensive Spaniard ever. It is a gamble, one on which Benítez's legacy, and his reputation, may well rest; one which, at three times the fee, will have to pay far greater dividends than the last time Benítez brought a centre-forward called Fernando to Anfield. Morientes came with a big reputation and departed having scored eight league goals in 41 league games. For Torres, the pressure is on.
On the face of it he has the credentials to rise to the challenge. He had scored 64 goals before he was 13 and got another 68 over the next two seasons, breaking a club record. At 14 he won the Nike Cup, being named the best Under-15 player in Europe, at 16 he led Atlético to the national juvenile league, and then he was the leading scorer and player of the tournament as Spain won the Under-16 European Championship, hitting the winner in the final. He repeated the feat in the Under-19 championship.
When he made his Atlético debut it was on the orders of the chairman, Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, responding to the restlessness of fans desperate to see the player about whom they had heard so much, the saviour who would lead them out of the second division - or "hell" as the former owner Jesús Gil dubbed it. The pressure did not faze Torres and in his second match, against Albacete, he came on and changed the game, provoking two sendings-off and scoring the winner.
Since Atlético's return to the First Division in 2002 he has been their top scorer every season. He has scored 75 times in 173 games, twice finishing as La Liga's top-scoring Spaniard, never failing to get into double figures. Over the past four seasons only Samuel Eto'o and David Villa have scored more league goals.
And yet there have always been doubts. Torres divides Spain. He is an idol and a star, his raw talent unquestionable, but for some he almost became a figure of fun as well, capable of combining the most brilliant goals with the most incredible misses. When Spain drew 0-0 with Russia in a pre-World Cup friendly he was booed by Spain fans. On one occasion he got the ball, spun his marker, played a quick one-two, dashed clear leaving his defender for dead . . . and put the ball wide. It was, they said, classic Torres.
If Atlético fans indulged him his misses, won over by his love for the club and all too aware that they were watching a one-man team, others were less charitable. He did not do it when it mattered, they said - in 10 games against Real Madrid he has scored once and, for all the millions spent, Atlético have not secured a European place since his debut. He missed too many chances, they said, look at his record.
Torres has pace, power, athleticism and bags of skill, and he frightens defences with his direct running, but where are the goals? Not once has he scored 20 in a league season and, of the 19 he scored in 2003-04, six were penalties. In fact, subtract the penalties and he has twice scored 13 and twice 10 in the past four years.
Even his World Cup, with three goals, only temporarily won over the fans. When Luis Aragonés left him out of a friendly with Romania last winter, more than 80% of those polled agreed with the decision. Aragonés admitted that he had done it to shake Torres out of a rut.
And yet Benítez would be entitled to believe that the rut in question is Atlético Madrid. If Liverpool see in Torres a man who will get them 25 goals a season, they may be disappointed; he is no Fowler. But he is blessed with immense talent and the change may be exactly what he needs, not least because - too intelligent, too grounded, too open-minded - he is no José Antonio Reyes. Leaving Spain will not sink him. It may be the making of him.
Freed from an underachieving chaotic club where he has had seven managers and no support, where he has been burdened with too much too young, where he has, by his own admission, grown weary, maybe the brilliant player can be released - and the goals will follow.
After all, how many players would have scored the goals he has with a team like Atletico? When their sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, recently admitted, "It's ridiculous really that Fernando is still with us", the fans saw truth in his words. So, more importantly, did Torres, who finally feels that he has a club, a coach and team-mates worthy of him. Now he has to prove he is worthy of Benítez's gamble.
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