Fernando Torres' rivals are closing in
That sound Fernando Torres can hear at the moment is Roberto Soldado and Fernando Llorente breathing down his neck. And they are just, only just, drowning out the sound of time ticking away -- if not on Torres' career, than certainly on his chances of being either at Euro 2012 or being a central figure in Spain's defense of its European title.
To get things up front from the start, I haven't given up on Torres. His ability hasn't gone, but it appears his ability to scare the life out of defenders with his pace, power and wonderful technique temporarily has. That he and Chelsea chose poorly when they fluttered eyelashes at each other in January is a stone-cold certainty.
Torres' fitness was an issue when he arrived at Stamford Bridge for 50 million pounds nearly a year ago. He has started 22 matches in all competitions and received as many bookings, five, as he has scored goals. Whether his fitness and attitude have sufficiently improved is a matter of fierce debate.
Is he fourth-choice striker or fifth-? It's hard to tell. Does Andre Villas-Boas believe in him? He doesn't give that impression. Does Vicente Del Bosque? Much, much less than previously, it would appear. But the fact that Spain would be more powerful, would have a better tournament temperament, would stand more chance of being the first nation in history to win three consecutive major tournaments if Torres was back at his devastating best is self-evident.
The trouble is that while Torres wrestles with his own confidence, motivation and the doubts he has about his teammates' willingness to give him the ball when he needs it, his rivals are closing in on him.
Torres' best form this season has been in the Champions League. Against Leverkusen in the first group game he created both goals and looked comfortable in his skin for the first time in a long time. Neither he nor I will ever know how he failed to leave the Mestalla stadium with two, probably three, goals after Valencia's Brazilian goalkeeper Diego Alves played utterly brilliantly against him. Alves made seven saves and afterward, when I asked him to name the best one, he said it was the one from a close-range volleyed hook-shot by Torres.
Four appearances, two goals, three assists -- the Spaniard has looked motivated and confident in this competition. Which makes it all the more ironic that Soldado, the most puzzling absence from Spain's recent matches, could help knock Torres and Chelsea out of the Champions League next week.
Soldado has 12 goals in fifteen Champions League matches and has hit the target 25 times in his past 27 appearances across all competitions -- the kind of bullish stats Torres used to post for Liverpool.
Torres failed to score, or really make an impact, as Chelsea was knocked out of the Carling Cup on Tuesday against his former club. And if Soldado's team can win or produce a scoring draw in London next week, the Blues will be out of the Champions League, too.
How much would that advance Soldado's case? Well, the excellence of some of Spain's blue-ribbon players in the past two tournament victories has obscured how vital some of the cameo roles were.
Luis Aragones consistently introduced Dani Guiza (remember him?), Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla or Sergio Garcia (he and Guiza got three goals between them) in Euro 2008. And Fabregas not only ended up starting the final as second striker but was one of the tournament's most influential players, having scored the quarterfinal-winning penalty.
During Spain's World Cup win, Fabregas again had to start from the bench but made a big contribution, notably the assist in the final, as did Llorente, who changed the first knockout game against Portugal. Then there is Pedro, whose international profile was extremely low but whose form at Barca made him irresistible. The winger dragged Germany all over the pitch in the semifinal and started the final against the Netherlands.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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So for all the superstar names you can reel off -- Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta -- tournament wins so often hinge on the man, or men, on form, even if he appears to be a "lesser" light when the competition begins.
Soldado threatens to be that man. But that's not to discount the threat of Llorente. His club, Athletic Bilbao, is now being coached by the idiosyncratic but patently talented Marcelo Bielsa.
For those who already adore Llorente's wonderful personality, Terminator physique and delightful skill set, the good news is that Bielsa is making him a more complete footballer. Accustomed to being the sole point of reference in the attack, Llorente's movement was designed to offer passing opportunities, to get him in space in front of goal or to drag a defender wide. Now Bielsa is teaching him to work harder for the team, to press, to drop back and make it hard for the opposition to win easy possession in midfield and, specifically, to be both more generous and more strategic in the work he puts in.
"Bielsa is demanding more of me, but I know I've got more to give," Llorente said. "His demand is that we all run more but with strategic intelligence in how and when we press -- and that it has to be done in groups. Being in great physical shape is very important, but I'm also enjoying my play more, scoring goals of different kinds."
If those words had come from the mouth of Torres -- working harder, enjoying my football, listening to the coach, putting in more effort for the team, sure of his potential to improve and scoring new types of goals -- think how Spain and Del Bosque would be lapping it up.
What remains unarguable is that Torres is the best footballer of the three, and you can throw Alvaro Negredo into that equation without changing the verdict. Torres is also a serial tournament winner for Spain. If you take youth and senior levels, he has reached, and won, four finals. Better still, in three of those four he scored the only goal in 1-0 wins -- against France and Germany (twice) to win the U-16 European championship, the U-19 championship and Euro 2008.
Even in the darkest of times it was still Torres' cross into the box at the World Cup final that unhinged Rafael van der Vaart and allowed Fabregas to set up Iniesta for the winner.
Not a bad record. You can see why Del Bosque hasn't yet lost faith in him. But past records will not take Torres all the way to Poland and Ukraine. He needs to show fitness, form, self-belief. More than anything, he needs to score.
If not, Soldado, Llorente and perhaps even Negredo threaten to usurp not only his place on the team but on the squad, too.
There is a strong suspicion that the lure of making his team the FIFA Club World Cup champion for the second time in two years is partially responsible for the way in which Pep Guardiola has planned FC Barcelona's physical regimen this season.
Since he took over, Guardiola has firmly established that he and his experts can produce a kind of time-release effect with the players' fitness, stamina and sharpness. Guardiola's squad has repeatedly produced jaw-dropping form in mid-November until mid-December, which has also repeatedly set it up to win the past three Spanish titles.
Right now, however, Barcelona is performing as it usually does in October: capable and adequate in most matches but occasionally flat and vulnerable.
I suspect Guardiola believed that his players were good enough and sufficiently strong-willed to deal with a bumpy autumn, while not losing touch with Real Madrid. But I also think he has had his eye on what's to come: not just the Clasico on Dec. 10, but then the Club World Cup in Tokyo, where Barca will play its first match on Dec. 15. You cannot underestimate the damaging impact of jet leg -- especially for such a far-flung venue -- on athletes. This demanding schedule must have persuaded Guardiola to alter his fitness planning.
Instead of peaking in early to mid-November, it looks like Barca intends to be firing on all cylinders for what should be (if form holds) a Club World Cup final against Neymar's Santos on Dec. 18.
In theory, the plan read: "Win Spanish Supercup, win the European Supercup, cope as well as possible with league demands, qualify as quickly as possible for the next round of the Champions League, stay close to Madrid, get a draw at the Bernabeu in the first Clasico, go to Tokyo and return as world champion."
Initial impressions would have supported that choice. A sensational pair of performances against Jose Mourinho's team in the Spanish Supercup in August backed up by occasional thrashings of visitors to Camp Nou would have been persuasive had it not been for the eight-stone-weakling performances away from home, culminating in Barcelona's 1-0 defeat at Getafe this past weekend.
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But chew on this: Despite Guardiola not using the same set of defenders more than twice consecutively in the 14 league matches this season, and despite the coach picking eight different defensive lines in 14 Liga matches, Barca have a better goals for/against record now than at this stage a year ago.
What it hasn't been able to match is the run of six straight away wins in the first 13 league matches last season. For that reason -- and because Madrid has scored more and conceded fewer than at this stage last term -- there was a six-point gap between the rivals coming out of last weekend.
The Club World Cup has benefited Barca as their league game against Rayo Vallecano (Madrid's fourth club) was brought forward and won Tuesday night. A six-point gap became three again, so if Barcelona can defeat jaunty Levante this weekend, it will go to the Clasico in Madrid with the unlikely prospect that a win would put it equal on points and, at worst, a defeat would only leave it six points behind -- albeit with Madrid possessing a game in hand. It just places a healthier glow on what might otherwise have been a nine-point gap if the Rayo game had not been advanced and Madrid won the Clasico.
I admit that you have to hold your breath and hope for the best when you offer constructive criticism of a man who has won 12 of his past possible 15 tournaments, but perhaps if Guardiola wasn't monkeying about with his defensive lineups quite so much, then draws in San Sebastian, Valencia and Bilbao might have been wins, and the defeat away to Getafe might have been a draw. Might -- I say might.
Coordination comes from consistency; consistency is a habit; habits are formed from doing the same or similar things over and again -- and doing them well. Guardiola is a revolutionary football thinker. Hard-working, visionary, imaginative, bold and smart. However, these talents don't mean that he is flawless. Perhaps a small move back to the drawing board as far as consistency of defensive selection might close the gap between stats of 34-0 goals for and against at home and 8-7 in the same category on the road.
What happens after the Clasico in Madrid and the Club World Cup in Tokyo will speak volumes about Guardiola's fitness planning. But win, lose or draw, more football tests will come thick and fast in the new year. Making fewer changes at the back every single week might well be a major advantage in remaining competitive with Real Madrid's excellence in the second half of this intriguing season.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.