Fernando Torres tells the story of the first time he spoke to Rafa Benítez after finding out that he was going to be a father. It was a Monday morning at Melwood, and Benítez approached the striker. "Congratulations, Fernando," he said. Torres recalls the pause as he waited for the inevitable next question: Is it a boy or a girl? Instead, Benítez noted just how well he had attacked the near post the day before -- exactly as he had worked on in training.
As soon as Benítez said that, Torres realized how foolish he had been to expect anything different. "I honestly don't think I have ever had a conversation with him that hasn't been about football. That's just the way he is," the striker said.
Now they are reunited at Chelsea. In his autobiography, Torres described the man who has just taken over at Stamford Bridge in just four words: "Rafa Benítez, football manager." He is, to use the Spanish word, pesado. Heavy, hard-work, a pain, relentless. Many players have had problems working with him.
Torres is not one of them. Benítez's arrival at Chelsea has not been universally welcomed. The headline on the back of the English newspaper The Mirror was to the point: "We don't want you, Benítez." The "we" were Chelsea fans; some Chelsea players may even feel the same way. But for Torres this could be an opportunity, the chance he needed. If other managers felt obliged to play him -- and it seems more than a coincidence that Roberto Di Matteo's last act before being sacked was to leave him out -- Benítez may be different. Here is a coach that likes Torres and can work with him. A man who has done so out of conviction not obligation.
No manager has gotten as much out of the striker as Benítez did at Liverpool. One hundred games into his Liverpool career, he had a better goals ratio than Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish or Roger Hunt. It reached the point where Torres scoring goals seemed inevitable, his signing obvious. But it was not always so. Even as the idol of Atlético Madrid's fans, his goal-scoring record was nowhere near as impressive as it would become at Anfield. Signing Torres was a risk, one that Alex Ferguson decided against, for a start.
Benítez had taken that risk and then taken the time to work with him and to construct a team that suited him. Listening to Torres talk about Benítez, the admiration is clear, the gratitude, too. Benítez may not have been the warmest man -- "he encourages you with criticism ... if you can't handle that it can damage your self-esteem," Torres said -- but to judge by what the striker says, there is no questioning the work, the method, the insight.
It feels appropriate now to revisit Torres' interview with FourFourTwo magazine in late 2009 in the wake of Benítez arriving at Stamford Bridge. At a time when most question his signing, the man who most needs the coach's support may well feel like he is about to receive the rescue he so badly needs. He said: "When I met Rafa I realized maybe for the first time just how important a coach is."
Back then, Torres explained the mechanisms, the movement, that led to better stats than he had ever had before. "Things that you would never even have thought about, Rafa does. Things that you thought weren't important are. You might think 'that's ridiculous,' but the thing is the proof is there in front of you. You try it and you see that it's true. It really works ... People say things like: 'He's got to improve his shooting,' but that doesn't mean anything. You have to look deeper than that; you have to focus on how you get into the position to shoot, your arrival point, the position of your body. To say, 'He's got to shoot better' is banal, so general as to be meaningless. How do you find the space? How do you get into that position? How do you finish? In what way?"
He continued: "Rafa talks to me a lot about the position of my body. If you're turned fractionally more to the right or left you might get a millisecond's advantage; if when you receive the ball you shift you weight you can get away easier. The way you position yourself against the center backs, focus on their position and judge their movements as well as your own is vital. One of the most important things I've learnt with Rafa is how to play closer to the opposition's penalty area -- how to get in behind the defenders as a solo striker. I don't have to come back and look for the ball; I fix my position by the center backs more than by the ball or the build up.
"Sometimes the things you work on are things you can't even see, but you realize when you try it that each little detail Rafa works on with you might be three or four more goals a season. Three or four more goals a season for every little detail he teaches you might be another 10 or 11 goals and suddenly you're scoring 30 goals a year, not 20."
Twenty? Thirty? Since Torres went to Chelsea, the figures have been more like 10. Since Benítez left Liverpool, in fact. Liverpool's team was set up to play longer, more direct. Asked what the difference between England and Spain was, Torres replied: "It's much more direct, there's less build up. In Spain it's slower, there are more touches on the ball before you get to the opposition's penalty area; in England it's all power, pace. And that suits me much better." He thought he was talking about two countries; as it turned out he was talking more about specific clubs under specific managers.
At Chelsea, he has not been able to do what he did at Liverpool. At Chelsea, he has not worked under Benítez. In Neil Ashton's fascinating article about Di Matteo's sacking in The Daily Mail, one detail stands out. Di Matteo had done a statistical analysis of Torres' 81 goals for Liverpool. Fifty-six of his goals, 69 percent of them, came from passes that set him free behind the defense, releasing him quickly and directly into space. The style suited Torres perfectly. It was Benítez's style. They were made for each other. Never before had he played on a team that suited his style so well; never again would he either.
There is no guarantee that he will get that now either. Chelsea has not been able to replicate that approach and may not be able to. With the players it has, with Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, it may be complex. It may not even be advisable. But Torres must hope so, though the Benitez debut wasn't particularly promising (a 0-0 draw with Manchester City with Torres back in the starting lineup).
Torres' form has plummeted, and they have to try something or give up trying altogether. One comment summed it up: "Torres has finished off more managers than chances." Perhaps at last he has a coach that does not see him as a threat, where there is no mutual suspicion. Perhaps at last he has a coach that can build a team to suit him, to rescue him. If, that is, he wants to. If Benítez cannot get the best out of Torres, perhaps no one can. That could well be one of the reasons why he has been hired: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich appears desperate for Torres to play the central role.
Not as desperate as Torres must be. He needs this. If this feels like a chance, it is a last one.