The resurrection of Fernando Torres
There are no gray areas when it comes to Fernando Torres. If you're in the addled Blue minority, you sympathize with his spectacular case of the goal-scoring yips. You believe that it's only a matter of time until the swashbuckling Spaniard rediscovers the mojo that terrorized the best defenses in Europe a mere three years ago.
Or you can be like almost everybody else and want to burn his jersey in effigy and delight in his pain.
Similarly, there is no middle ground as to how people believe this twisted version of "Don Quixote" will play out. Either Torres will be the noble knight riding off into a West London sunset, or he'll be a decrepit old man poking windmills with a soccer boot.
Torres is simply one of those players who commands our attention no matter what. If he states the obvious (he described his Chelsea teammates as "old" and "very slow"), it blows back to the level of the Spanish Inquisition. And if he ignores the obvious (he naively viewed his recent benching as a strategy to keep him fresh for Champions League action), it instantly explodes into a histrionic tabloid headline like "Torres's Demise Complete" only four games into the season. For a guy who has won both the World Cup and Euro championship, he just can't win.
If you didn't know better, you'd think Torres was an emblem of everything that is wrong with Chelsea -- creaking players, monstrous egos, Russian hegemony, not enough goals.
So imagine what a worrisome sight it must have been for the Torres taunters Tuesday night. While the self-doubting striker may not yet have turned the well-known corner, he's finally peeking around it. In a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the opening round of the Champions League, Torres displayed hints that he may be ready to transform himself from a one-goal-in-23-games liability back into the cold-eyed marksman who became the fastest player in Liverpool history to reach 50 goals.
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The fact that there is even a slight uptick on the Torres disast-o-meter passes for news in the countdown to ignominy that grows increasingly epic every game he goes without disturbing the net. Wouldn't it be something if he somehow stopped the slide into future Andriy Shevchenko-esque irrelevance against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday? Is there a bigger statement of intent Torres could make than to finally come good against the defending champion that is steamrollering over opponents en route to the Oct. 23 Soccergeddeon against Manchester City?
Personally, I'm rooting for him, not so much because I have any great affection for petulant goal poachers who play with their hair pulled back, but because I find Torres-bashing to be almost as tedious as moaning about Arsenal's fall from Prem grace. Not that I'm above it, mind you, but trashing Torres has become just another tired old punch line. That's why I'd love to see a Wayne Rooney-type resurrection. Plus, it would really annoy Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish.
As inconceivable as it may sound today, until a couple of years ago Torres was in the same conversational as another "rich, handsome and great player," except Cristiano Ronaldo continued his preening, diving and prolific scoring, while Nando found himself mired in the first two. It's a measure of how far he has fallen that certain non-Russian members of the Chelsea brain trust would probably love to Eto'o him off to whatever Siberian gulag could be convinced to take him in his current form. That said, his lively, influential performance against Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday, in which he was credited for the assist on both goals (not to be confused with scoring both goals), can be viewed as baby steps on the road to vindication.
For once, Nando didn't look like the lumbering, jittery three-toed sloth who regularly hauled his $80 million price tag around like a leg iron. In the first 10 minutes, he grazed the crossbar with a sumptuous long-range effort, scored a goal -- one that was disallowed, naturally -- and even threw in a hilariously Scholesian hack that earned him a booking. These days, that qualifies as a hat trick for Torres.
As the match meandered toward a draw, the former Iberian stud flashed his skills of yore -- first cushioning the ball neatly into Sideshow Luiz's path for the Brazilian center back to demonstrate proper goal-scoring technique, and then squaring it for his compatriot Juan Mata to side-foot it home. The more charitable among us would call his second assist "selfless," while longtime Torres watchers know that any effort from that narrow an angle was destined to flatten some unsuspecting fan in the ninth row.
It's always risky to divine too much from a single 90-minute effort, no matter how enterprising, but El Nino will take whatever he can get. Until now, he's been the ill-fitting peg on a Chelsea squad very set in its laborious, stodgy and winning ways. Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba have defined themselves as a blunt-force trauma unit, battering opponents into submission up front and bullying them at the back. Where does a precocious, finesse striker like Torres fit into that equation? With his recent goal-scoring record probably at Arsenal.
But manager Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea is morphing into a different beast, one that no longer solely relies on a Stoke-but-with-skill mentality. The additions of Mata, Romelu Lukaku and Barca B ingenue Oriol Romeu mean the Blues have the fluency and speed to fit Torres' game. With Drogba still in traction after his knocked-into-the-middle-of-next-month collision with Norwich keeper John Ruddy, Torres figures to be in the starting lineup at Old Trafford, probably alongside the dynamic Daniel Sturridge, he of the Zola-esque backheel goal last weekend.
Not that any of this is likely to keep Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson from sleeping soundly after his businesslike 1-1 draw at Benfica on Wednesday. Last season, a lesser United squad handled Chelsea with relative ease, taking three from four -- 1-0 and 2-1 wins in the Champions League quarterfinals, and a 2-1 victory that brought the Red Devils to the brink of their record 19th title. The level of concern has been so low that Sir Alex spent the week doing his Chris Berman impression, dubbing the newly resurgent Rooney the "White Pele." Wazza got his mental game rolling by tweeting teammate Phil Jones for tips about getting highlights in his new hair. When you're enjoying the kind of blistering form United has, you're not going to wet your pants unless Barcelona -- or, though Ferguson would be loath to admit, his noisy neighbors -- comes to the Theatre of Dreams.
Even in his revitalized state, Torres isn't the player he was when he turned United's two-time EPL MVP, Nemanja Vidic, into his own personal finger puppet and coaxed the wily Serb into a pair of red cards in their two meetings in 2009.
If Chelsea wants to win the respect of the league, eventually it'll have to beat United. Who knows: If Nando can be instrumental in a victory Sunday, maybe Rooney will start calling him for highlighting tips.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."