At 26 Fernando Torres was already one of the most iconic players of his generation. A natural born goalscorer with an elegant swagger, idolised from the back-streets of Fuenlabrada to the Kop End of Anfield. He’d become the Premier League’s most clinical striker and to top it all had just become a World Champion.
Just when it seemed like nothing could go wrong in the career of one of the stars of the modern game, almost out of nowhere, everything began to unravel. Whether Torres had already started to lose his way by the time he signed for Chelsea is open to debate but his decision to swap Anfield for Stamford Bridge certainly marked the commencement of a downward spiral that has gripped the second half of his career. Almost from the moment he first stepped out in a Chelsea shirt, which ironically was against his former employers, he didn’t look like being anything more than a £50million flop. For the first time in his career he was vilified by supporters that used to worship him and he did little to win himself new admirers at Stamford Bridge, netting just once in 18 appearances in his first season at the club.
All of a sudden a player, whose career had been pretty close to a fairytale rise up until that point, looked a dejected, lonely figure in a blue shirt, completely devoid of self-belief. From the outside at least he appeared out of love with a game that had always come so naturally to him. Under greater scrutiny than ever before, every last movement on a football pitch appeared to be a struggle for Torres and at times it was almost agonising to watch.
He was a shadow of his former self at Chelsea and by the end of his 3rd full season at Stamford Bridge, the club had become so desperate to cut ties with him, they agreed to loan him to Italian giants AC Milan for the remaining 2 years of his Chelsea contract, effectively writing off their £50million investment by ensuring he would never play for the club again.
It’s hard to recall a more drastic demise from a footballer in the supposed prime years of his career. In 4 short years he’d gone from being one of the most exciting strikers on the planet to a byword for failure and butt of all jokes and someone who was struggling to get game time in one of the worst Milan sides in living memory.
Despite that there had still been the odd glimpse in his long barren run of the player he once was. His injury time goal at Camp Nou in the Champions League semi-final had been one of the defining moments of Chelsea’s 2012 European triumph and suggested he still had an appetite for a big occasion. It’s also easy to forget that Torres did score 22 goals in his second full season at Chelsea, a tally he’d only bettered once previously at either Liverpool or Atleti.
In short there had been just about enough there to suggest to potential suitors that he might be worth taking a gamble on and Torres would soon get his shot at salvation.
A fairly bizarre arrangement transpired in January 2015 that saw Milan buy Torres on a permanent deal from Chelsea despite his dismal form on loan for the club, only to immediately loan him out to Atletico Madrid, Torres’ boyhood club and the place where he had made his name.
Still a hero to Atleti fans, 45,000 of them turned out at the Vicente Calderon on a non-match day just to welcome back their former hero, who they continue to affectionately refer to as ‘el niño’ despite him having recently turned 32. If anything was going to make Torres fall back in love with football and rediscover the fire in his belly, you sensed this would be it. If he was going to get back to anything like his best, it was surely a case of now or never.
While Torres had been in deep decline, Atleti had been on a rise almost as dramatic under Diego Simeone, a man who perhaps better than anyone possesses the motivational qualities required to re-invigorate a faltering career. Initially it seemed like the re-union was going to be a happy one. Torres netted a brace in a Madrid derby at the Bernabeu and scored against Barcelona within a month of re-joining the club and for a brief spell it looked as though the old Torres might just be back.
However much like his rare good runs of form at Chelsea, it soon fizzled out and proved to be another false dawn. He scored just 5 more goals in all competitions over the following 12 months and the limited indicators coming out of the Vicente Calderon seemed to suggest that Simeone was set to call time on Torres’ 2nd spell at Atletico Madrid this summer when his loan deal expires.
However just when it seemed like the writing was on the wall for his career at Atleti and quite possibly in European football, something seems to have kicked into life. Perhaps it dawned on Torres that this really was going to be his final chance to salvage things. The notion that he wasn’t even going to be considered good enough to be a squad player at a club that he had once outgrown must have been tough to take but it seems to have unleashed a new hunger in him.
This month has been his best since he swapped Merseyside for London over 5 challenging years ago. For the first time in his career, Torres scored in 5 consecutive games including a crucial away goal at Barcelona in the Champions League. His needless sending off soon afterwards in the short-term hampered his sides chances considerably but also in a perverse way suggested that the relentless appetite that Torres played with during the first half of his career might just have returned.
Certainly it’s hard to recall seeing Torres as fired up as he has been over the past few weeks with Atleti pushing for silverware both at home and abroad. El niño all of a sudden looks set be an integral part of that challenge and with Atleti’s other strikers struggling for goals, he is likely to maintain his place in the starting eleven for the remainder of the season and has somewhat fancifully even been touted as a surprise contender to make Spain’s Euro 2016 squad.
While it’s difficult to resist the urge to suggest we’ve been here before, the romantic inside every football fan is hoping that this time we might be seeing a more genuine resurgence from the much maligned striker. There would be few greater fairytales than Torres continuing his current good form and leading his boyhood club to glory in either La Liga or the Champions League in what could well be his final season for the club.
While Simeone may now be veering towards trying to keep Torres for at least another year, his plans could be scuppered by a transfer ban that could deny Atleti the right to register any new players this summer, which would most likely mean ‘Adios Fernando’ given he is still officially an AC Milan player.
You sense that if a deal isn’t put in place for Torres to stay at Atleti, either due to the ban or a lack of desire on the club’s part, that could well be the last we see of Torres as a footballer in Europe. He seems to have his heart set on staying at Atleti, the one club where he is truly loved and if that fails to materialise it’s hard to see what would motivate him to go and play for another, most likely lesser European side.
If he was to be denied the right to stay on at the Vicente Calderon for such reasons it would be doubly cruel given his recent form, which is easily the best of his 2nd spell at the club. You only have to look to Aritz Aduriz at Athletic Bilbao or Ruben Castro at Betis to see that strikers can still flourish in this league well into their mid-30s and therefore if this really is a revitalised Torres, he could still have plenty to offer.
The alternative would most likely be a summer switch to the United States or perhaps even China and while his bank account and goal tally would certainly increase, it would in many respects mark the commencement of a sad and quite premature end to a once hugely promising career.