Thursday, February 12, 2009

Torres' perfect partner

Rafa Benítez may have been worried about his striker's fitness, but he'd be better off wondering how to get David Villa to Anfield

With every minute Rafael Benítez grew more concerned but, like those who feared a repeat of the racist chanting that marred the last meeting between these two countries in 2004, he need not have worried. Fernando Torres did not break down last night. Instead, he was withdrawn after 64 minutes to a roar of approval from Andalucía and a sigh of relief from Anfield. Vicente del Bosque insisted that he will return to Liverpool in "perfect" condition, more than capable of playing two games a week for the rest of the season.

The credibility of Benítez's insistence that his team have the attacking power to maintain a title challenge, even in the absence of the offloaded Robbie Keane and the injured Steven Gerrard, was not stretched further by a setback for the man on whom much of their hopes now rest. Nor was Spain's reputation damaged further by racist abuse. Instead, there was a fiesta; whistling of God Save the Queen and mocking of David Beckham was as bad as it got.

But if Torres survived unscathed, he did not carry his usual dynamic threat, that little burst of pace and assuredness of touch still to return after a season in which he has suffered the same hamstring injury three times. Unlike the man who replaced him, Fernando Llorente, Torres did not score; more importantly, though, unlike Llorente nor did he depart hobbling. "Torres played 70 minutes and was fine; our only concern is for Llorente," the Spain coach said.

Torres was a willing runner at the England defence. Lively, he drew blocks from John Terry and Glen Johnson, and almost found a way through with a sharp turn. But he was not the striker who scored 33 club goals last season and then Spain's most important goal in 44 years, to win the European Championship. Small wonder Benítez is so keen to protect him; no surprise Seville was so keen to see him.

Del Bosque spent much of the build-up defusing rumours of a falling out with Benítez. The Liverpool coach complained bitterly that Torres was not ready for a call-up; Del Bosque picked him to start, while his suggestion that giving Torres a long run-out "might be good for him" would have positively infuriated Benítez. As the second half started, Spain boasted four Liverpool players including, perhaps unexpectedly, Torres. The week's accusations provided the backdrop to Del Bosque's broad, mischievous smile as he reported the striker's clean bill of health afterwards.

Rather than vent his fury at Spain, Benítez's energies could be better channelled into persuading David Villa to reproduce his partnership with Torres on Merseyside. A huge outlay and subsequent loss on Keane looks folly against talent like this; Villa might cost more, but he is certain to leave Valencia and goals come guaranteed. Privately, he prefers to remain in Spain but England has not been ruled out.

The top scorer at Euro 2008, Villa has 145 goals in 269 games at smaller clubs. Forever on his toes, swift and alert, Terry and Jagielka simply could not deal with him. He slotted home coolly from Andrés Iniesta's clever pass after 25 minutes, only for the linesman to rule it out. But he was not to be denied. A pass from Xabi Alonso took him well beyond Terry, then he turned Jagielka inside out and finished smoothly.

It was his 25th goal for Spain in 42 games and he set a national record by scoring in his sixth successive match. Villa did every thing Benítez would have liked to have seen Torres do – including walk off after 55 minutes. Torres would have wait a few minutes more. So, too, would a concerned Benítez.

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