Juan Mata slotted the ball into the net, rushed across to the man who had provided the pass and leapt into his arms. Chelsea had just got its second of the night, securing a 2-0 win against Bayer Leverkusen in its opening Champions League game at Stamford Bridge and the former Valencia player had scored his second goal in just three games. Yet Mata handed the credit to someone else, pointing at the tall, blonde striker who provided the assist: Fernando Torres. The message was clear: cheer him, everyone, cheer him.
The gesture was a significant one. Torres was important in Mata joining Chelsea, doing all he could to persuade his Spain teammate to come to London, and yet his own experience has so far proven far from perfect. These are difficult days and cheering Torres has not been easy for supporters to do. Harder yet for some teammates. The build up to the game had been marked by remarks the Spaniard made referring to the Chelsea midfield as "old" and "slow," prompting the coach Andre Villas-Boas to publicly admit that he was to open an investigation.
In truth, the remarks were not as damning as they looked. His was a technical appraisal rather than an unprovoked attack and was not intended as an excuse or an accusation. The remarks did, though, reveal a long-standing frustration: privately, Torres has harbored concerns about the lack of mobility in the Chelsea midfield for some time. The remarks revealed too the hopes that Torres has placed in Juan Mata -- not just for Chelsea, but for his own form. At last, he believes, he may have a player who can provide chances and goals; one with whom he can communicate and combine.
During the course of an interview with the Spanish league's website, Torres responded to a question about what Mata could bring to the team that they did not already have. In noting his dynamism and youth, the verticalidad and creativity with which he plays, Torres drew the comparison with the current midfield. The quotes were also run, translated into English, on his own website. And then, when they found their way into the UK press, they appeared in the form of stark and screaming headlines: "OLD!" "SLOW!"
The fact that Torres was right was not much of a defense. As Villas-Boas put it, "Fernando has to see our point of view too." So Chelsea's midfield is old and slow? Yes, but saying so wasn't wise given the current media climate -- this column has lamented the fact that players can so rarely say anything remotely interesting any more -- and was even more unwise given the current climate at Chelsea. Torres' comments certainly would not have helped his relationship with the rest of the squad, especially not as there is already a sense of suspicion, almost a rejection of Torres as a kind of "teacher's pet" -- the owner's player, imposed on the rest. And one that does not even deserve that status.
Worse, it sounded like a desperate excuse and most believe that Torres has no excuse; he was pointing the finger elsewhere when he should be pointing it at himself. If you are going to criticize your team, you had better do so from a position of strength. And right now Torres's position is not so strong -- for Chelsea or for Spain. So much so that this summer there were discreet discussions at Stamford Bridge about how best to handle Torres's situation, during which the idea of a sale was floated.
The previous game, Torres had started on the bench and it was not just Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka that could be judged to be ahead of him. Daniel Sturridge scored a wonderful goal. There had been a suggestion that Torres had been rested because he had been on international duty, but three days earlier he hadn't even made the bench. Instead, he sat in the stands as Spain beat Liechtenstein 5-0. The man who replaced Torres was Álvaro Negredo. And he scored twice.
With that victory, Spain clinched its qualification for the European Championships. The question now is will Torres be there with them in Poland and the Ukraine this summer? He is not making much of a case for inclusion. When Mata scored on Tuesday night it was his second goal for the club. He has now scored more in three games than Torres has in 23.
For Spain, the ratio is poor too. Vicente del Bosque has always shown loyalty to his players and was quick to defend Torres throughout the World Cup, insisting -- quite rightly -- on the way in which he still had a role to play, even when the goals dried up. Torres occupied opposition defenders, gave depth and power to the attack and created space for others. David Villa in particular has been keen to stress Torres' role in him scoring goals for Spain.
But in the end, the evidence became overwhelming and the reality is also that in an eminently technical, patient team, Torres' more direct talents do not always fit. To watch him in the tight, extremely slick piggy in the middle sessions with the Spain squad is to witness a player removed from his comfort zone.
Only former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez has consistently got the best out of Torres, with a direct, rapid counterattacking style. Torres needs pace and space -- something he hinted at with his comments on Chelsea -- and Spain's game does not always offer that, nor demand his specific qualities. There have been suggestions that injury has seen him lose a vital fraction of his pace and emotionally he has clearly been far from the happy player he was at Liverpool.
Off the back of a difficult club season, Torres lost his Spain place during the World Cup. Since the quarterfinals he has started just two of Spain's 16 games.
Put simply, there are others that are better than him right now. According to statistics from Opta, since October 2009, when Álvaro Negredo made his debut, Torres has fewer Spain goals than all three center forwards that have played since then: Negredo, Fernando Llorente and Villa. His shot accuracy, shots-per-goal and goals per minute ratio is also less impressive than the other three. He hasn't provided an assist. He has scored just five in his last 32 games for Spain after the last three years.
Just as Sturridge increases the pressure at Chelsea so Torres is confronted by an uncomfortable fact for Spain: other challengers are emerging and right now they are making impressive cases for inclusion. Last weekend, Del Bosque was at Mestalla to see Roberto Soldado head the winner for Valencia against Atlético Madrid. It was his 16th in 11 league games. It will surely not be long before Soldado is called up to the Spain squad and the inevitable question is: who will he replace? Many think the answer is equally inevitable: Torres.
Nor it is not just Soldado. When it comes to club goals in 2011, Torres is not just behind Soldado in terms of goals per minute, he is behind 15 other Spaniards. Yes, 15. Over the last year, Soldado, Negredo, Pedro, Kike Sola, Mata, Gaizka Toquero, Villa, Llorente, Manu, Adrián, Colunga, Miguel de las Cuevas, Gabi, David Silva, Jose Reyes, and Raúl all have better goals per minute ratios than Torres. Those stats are of course skewed by momentary gluts of goals and can soon be shifted. No one is seriously saying they are all better than the Chelsea striker -- and some of them are not even strikers. But the pressure builds. His grip on a place in the Spain squad loosens.
In 2008, Fernando Torres scored the most important goal in Spanish soccer history. In early 2011, he became the most expensive player in English soccer history. But that was then and this is now. And now, these are difficult times. On Tuesday night Torres provided an assist for Juan Mata to score. Everything that has happened over the last two weeks shows that what he really needs is for it to be the other way round. And soon.