"Rafa Benitez has been the most important coach in my career. He has been the only one who knew how to help me improve." If there is one quote that is getting the media excited about the appointment of Rafael Benitez as the new Chelsea manager it is this one. They are the words of Fernando Torres in an interview with Esquire magazine last year.
And it isn't just journalists digging out this quote. Benitez himself seems delighted with it - the words are reproduced on his own official website as part of a glowing appraisal from the striker he worked with for three years at Liverpool. "He is a coach who is very meticulous and who can identify small but very important details that no-one else sees to enable you to score," adds Torres. "I worked with him a lot individually and I think we saw the benefit of this on the pitch."
Indeed, the benefit was obvious. Benitez helped Torres make the transition from talented but callow performer at Atletico Madrid to perhaps the foremost out-and-out striker in world football during their time together at Anfield. Torres was behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the 2008 Ballon D'Or voting and a record of 72 goals in 116 games under Benitez was every bit as remarkable as the sharp decline that has followed.
|Fernando Torres club career|
|Before Rafael Benitez||243||91|
|Under Rafael Benitez||116||72|
|Since Rafael Benitez||112||28|
The Spaniard's goalscoring record since Benitez's politically-fraught exit from Liverpool in 2010 is patently miserable. Twenty-eight goals in club football from 112 appearances equates to exactly one goal for every four games. Even allowing for the numerous substitute appearances it is a paltry return - not only in stark contrast to the ludicrous feats of erstwhile peers Ronaldo and Messi but also in light of that £50million transfer fee that looks set to dog his days at Stamford Bridge.
Fear not, Rafa is here, goes the cry. But the notion that Benitez has arrived on an interim deal chiefly in order to restore Torres to his former glory is not only flawed but it demeans a manager with a superb career history of his own. The 52-year-old remains a polarising figure in English football for reasons not entirely clear but this is a man who won La Liga twice with Valencia, then lifted the Champions League trophy with Liverpool, and all without the help of Torres. He is unlikely to view his job as a mere Torres-facilitator.
And if Benitez does fall into the trap of believing he is inheriting the player he left behind at Anfield then he will surely be disappointed. The explanations for the Chelsea striker's dramatic deterioration have been various and, increasingly, spurious. Firstly, he needed a run of games. Now he is suffering from burn-out. Initially it was that Chelsea were used to playing a long-ball game with Didier Drogba. Now they are deemed guilty of overplaying in midfield and not providing the through-balls that Torres is said to relish.
As one wag on Twitter put it, the introduction of Eden Hazard and Oscar appears to take its inspiration from the idea of female pandas being brought to a zoo - in the desperate hope that Torres can be stirred into action. Is Benitez just the latest attempt to reignite the forward's fire? One wonders whether it is any less daft than the notion that Manchester United should have appointed Gerard Houllier last season in an effort to get Michael Owen fit and firing.
To talk in terms of turning back the clock in regard to a 28-year-old footballer may appear harsh. But this is no blip. It has been coming for some time. Some may wish to trace Torres' decline back to Roy Hodgson's spell at Liverpool but consider the words of journalist Andy Hunter in the Guardian just weeks into Hodgson's reign in September 2010. "Injuries have taken a cumulative toll on a player whose fully fit debut season at Anfield is in danger of becoming the exception to his Premier League career," wrote Hunter.
"In the past 13 months Torres has completed 90 minutes for Liverpool on only 15 occasions. The past two campaigns have been frequently interrupted by fitness problems, causing internal conflict between the former manager, Rafael Benitez, and his medical staff, and there have been two knee operations in this calendar year alone."
The diminished pace may not be quite so obvious as with Owen and perhaps that is why many, including it seems Roman Abramovich, cling to the idea that Torres' best form can return. But this physical deterioration also appears to be coupled with a mental block that has proven insurmountable thus far. Benitez will try. It's in his remit. But don't be surprised if he has the same problems as his predecessors. The excuses are running out for Fernando Torres.
Is Rafael Benitez the right man for Chelsea?