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Torres' struggles traced to decision leading into 2010 World Cup

Photo: Marc Atkins/Icon SMI

Fernando Torres and Chelsea became the first club to be bounced from the Champions League group stage a season after winning the title.

Juan Mata made what seemed a pointed remark in an interview with French magazine So Foot that was published last week. During a chat about eating fish and chips (he's not a fan) and his favorite author (Charles Bukowski, whose "Ham and Rye" is the first book the Spaniard is trying to read in English), Mata was asked about friend Fernando Torres.

"When someone pays £50 million for you, and you become the most expensive striker in the Premier League, obviously you want to do well," Mata said. "But too much so, perhaps, and especially him, because Torres is someone who knows where he comes from. He's a very humble guy and knows the value of money. So if you have a period where the ball is not going in, you doubt, and that's very tough."

This is the first admission, albeit a second-hand one, that the British-record transfer fee has acted as a psychological destabilizer for Torres. And with good reason: every time he failed to score, which he did for a 25-game run from October 2011 to March 2012, that £50 million fee was invoked. Torres told El Pais in October that it got to the point where he had "lost the values I grew up with. I did not care if we won or lost if I did not get to play -- and I was not happy because I was far away from the person I wanted to be."

Mata's comment about "the value of money" is also interesting. There was no doubt that when Torres first moved to Liverpool, in 2007, he quickly understood the relationship between the club, the city and its fans; as a former Atletico Madrid player, Liverpool's working-class roots appealed to him.

"Playing for a team of the people is something that pleases me," he once told Canal Plus. "I wanted to contribute to a town trying to rebuild its image."

Chelsea, on the other hand, is a club hardly renowned for respecting "the value of money:" it is, after all, currently paying the salaries of three coaches, two of whom (Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo) have been sacked this year.

That does not explain why Torres has struggled so much in what is nearly two years at the club (the two-year anniversary, unlikely to be celebrated, is six weeks away). One reason, though, became apparent Saturday when he scored twice in a 3-1 win at Sunderland, making it four in a week after a brace in the 6-1 Champions League win over FC Nordsjaelland. After volleying home Eden Hazard's cross to give Chelsea the lead, Torres doubled his tally by scoring from a penalty early in the second half.

It was not only his first penalty for Chelsea, but his first in English football. He took penalties for Atletico, scoring 18 out of 26, but when he missed one for Liverpool in a preseason shootout against Portsmouth in July 2007, he was never asked by the Reds again (admittedly, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt were the first two picks for penalty duties). At Chelsea, there was a similar hierarchy in place: Frank Lampard scored two penalties in Torres' first six games -- one of which was when the team was leading against Blackpool (I can't help but wonder how Torres' Chelsea career might have panned out had Lampard let him take that one) -- while since then, Didier Drogba, Hazard and David Luiz have all scored from the spot.

Last March, when Mata was, in Lampard's absence, the designated taker, he even offered Torres the ball with Chelsea up 2-0 against Birmingham but such was Mata's compatriot's lack of confidence, he refused it. Mata then missed.

"More than the burden of his transfer fee, the big weight Torres has been carrying is the presence of Didier Drogba," said Cordula Reinhardt, of Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo. "Following Drogba is like one of Hercules' 12 Tasks, or the idea of Thiago Messi one day following (father) Lionel; the constant comparison, comparison, comparison and even if you score two in a match, it's not enough."

The Chelsea coach when Torres first joined the club, Carlo Ancelotti, spoke of his surprise that Drogba had stayed at Chelsea last season as his presence was clearly holding Torres back (that was before Drogba helped it win the Champions League). That aside, owner Roman Abramovich can now at least no longer be accused of not trying to get the best out of his investment, after appointing Rafa Benitez as interim Chelsea boss.

"Rafa taught me a lot and helped me go beyond my limits," Torres said when the pair was at Liverpool together. "You always need someone who brings the best out in you, someone who is very demanding; the difference between him and my other managers is that when I was at Atletico, I was always overprotected. If I score two goals in a game, I want to hear that I played badly to enable me to do even better next time. Rafa is ruthless; sometimes it's tiring but he's found the right way to deal with me."

You sense that this Torres needs more carrot than stick, although this latest renaissance has put his tally for the season at 10 in all competitions: more than each of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney (OK, so all three have played fewer games, but still). For all the suggestions that Chelsea -- whether the environment, the price tag, the coaches (four of them so far) or his teammates -- is to blame for Torres' dramatic loss of form, one thing must be remembered. It was Torres who decided to have an operation on his right knee in April 2010 as he felt that without it, he would not make Spain's World Cup squad that summer.

It was a gamble, as he told Michael Robinson, an ex-Liverpool player, on Spanish TV show Informe Robinson, to take out the meniscus in his right knee, which had been bothering him ever since he scored the Euro 2008 final's winning goal against Germany.

"I don¹t regret having had the op," he said. "I wanted to be there [in South Africa] so we had to take the whole of it [the meniscus] out. I don¹t regret having paid that prize to become a world champion, even if I know that my career might be three or four years shorter."

Torres started four games in a row in South Africa but lost his place to Pedro for the semifinal against Germany. That was not all he lost: he was clearly short of pace (that has never returned), and in the final he was unable to last the 15 minutes of second-half extra-time for which he had just come off the bench. By the time Andres Iniesta scored the goal that won the World Cup, Torres had limped off the pitch, 10 minutes after coming on, and was lying on a massage bed in the dressing room.

In the 27 games Torres played for Liverpool in the 2010-2011 season before he moved to Chelsea, he scored nine goals. His previous 27, before the operation, had produced 19 goals. The decline began before the striker moved to London.

Being crowned a world champion meant that, for Torres, the risk of the operation was worth the reward. In the week that Chelsea is currently in Yokohama, Japan, trying to win its first Club World Cup, it's unlikely that his current employer would agree.

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