By Ewan Roberts
After initially making a confident and promising start to the season, Fernando Torres is just starting to show signs of the frustration and petulance that was so prevalent during previous periods of impotence in front of goal.
Like a tightrope walker tentatively traversing a highwire, the Spaniard is ever-so-slightly beginning to wobble, and the speed with which he catches his balance could define both his and Chelsea's seasons.
For any other striker in world football, three games without a goal would hardly constitute a barren run, let alone warrant further examination. But not Torres. A curious beast, the Torres of today is as capable of the sublime as he is the ridiculous, known as much for the chances that he misses as the goals that he scores (a Google search returns more results for 'Torres miss' than 'Torres goal').
Now the striker, who fluctuates so frequently from icon to laughing stock, faces yet another stumbling block on his quest to dispel the demons that have haunted his recent past. Having gone 357 minutes (nearly six hours) without scoring for club or country, the £50 million signing must ensure that he responds positively to this latest setback.
SEVEN TO START
Torres' Player Ratings this season
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|Sep 15||v QPR|
Since the curtain raised on the new season, Torres has shown the full spectrum of his ability; the good, the bad, and the downright ugly - from the one-touch edge-of-the-box interplay and subsequent net-busting drive past Newcastle goalkeeper Tim Krul to his comically heavy first touch when through on goal against Saudi Arabia.
The man worth Andy Carroll-plus-£15 million has evidently improved this season. In his last campaign, Torres scored just six league goals (as many as team-mate and central defender John Terry) from 32 appearances, with a nine per cent conversion rate. This year, he boasts an increase to 22%.
Yet there are traces of the tells that manager Roberto Di Matteo highlighted last season as examples of him over-thinking in front of goal, trying to do too much, of abandoning simplicity. Certainly the Spaniard has been culpable of unnecessarily complicating his play and dawdling, panicking even, on the ball. No Chelsea player has lost possession or been dispossessed more often than Torres.
Di Matteo labelled Torres "psychologically damaged" at the height of his ineffectiveness and a fruitful Euro 2012, where he finished with the Golden Boot, does not appear to have fully repaired his fragile poise. One imagines that, as Torres bears down on goal, his cerebral cogs whirling into overdrive, the pressure and expectation pulses through his arteries, the posts before him begin to narrow and the keeper between them becomes a gargantuan obstacle.
Every missed chance (re)plants seeds of doubt, reviving memories of "that miss" against Manchester United.
Fans, perhaps Torres too, are waiting for the next blunder, rather than expecting brilliance. And while El Nino is battling his anxieties and scrapping just to retain and renew his depleting confidence levels, the unbridled and lethal arrogance that enveloped him in years gone by, unnerving even the league's best defenders, may have evaporated forever.
|12/1||Fernando Torres is 12/1 with PaddyPower to score a hat-trick in Chelsea v Stoke City
In previous seasons, the former Liverpool man might have attributed his lack of confidence and goals to the large and all-consuming shadow of Didier Drogba. The Ivorian was Chelsea's totemic talisman, a domineering presence on the field and off it. Every error that Torres made fuelled Drogba's case to replace him, every missed opportunity was followed by a worried glance in the direction of the imperious Ivorian.
It was Drogba who scored both the Blues' late equaliser in Munich and the decisive penalty. It was Drogba who stole the headlines. It was Drogba who won the Champions League.
Torres is a well-decorated footballer, triumphing in the World Cup, European Championship and Champions League, but perhaps there's a nagging doubt that those victories came in spite of him, rather than because of him. Goalless in South Africa, rejected in favour of a false No.9 in Poland and Ukraine and outshone by Drogba in Munich.
But now Chelsea have put all their eggs in one baby-faced basket and, while Torres may feel unburdened by the lack of competition, the onus is on him to deliver now more than ever. He is Chelsea's man main at last - their only man. The pressure and responsibility to produce when it really matters has been doubled, with no one to share the weight of goals. Will he buckle or flourish?
There is a certain irony and added connotation to the familiar chant that has become so synonymous with the Spaniard, based as it is on 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home', an American Civil War song expressing a longing for the return of a loved one. Everyone is waiting, praying, for the brilliant Torres of old to return fully and unequivocally.
But perhaps that Torres will never come marching home, perhaps we, like the player himself, must accept this new, more unpredictable and delicate replica. Chelsea's upcoming fixtures will reveal a lot about the forward's current state of mind and whether he can navigate the highwire of goalless self-doubt. Assuming we even want him to; sometimes it's just more fun to watch someone fall.
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