Whilst Spain secured their place in next summer’s European Championship finals at Poland-Ukraine, reaction after the comprehensive 6-0 win over Liechtenstein has focused on Fernando Torres, who found himself dropped for the first time in five years.
The Chelsea striker’s declining status in a Roja shirt can be traced back to the 58th minute of the 2010 World Cup second-round clash between Spain and Portugal. Both teams were locked in stalemate with the Spanish unable to craft a single opportunity of note. The team had registered just 20% of their attempts at goal from inside the penalty.
Torres, Spain’s misfiring line-leader, made way for Fernando Llorente, Athletic Bilbao’s tall targetman. The attack was instantly transformed. In the space of five minutes, a point-blank diving header from Llorente was clawed away by Eduardo and David Villa then flashed a 20-yard drive wide, before then squeezing in the goal which took La Roja past their Iberian neighbours and on to World Cup success. For Llorente, it was a breakthrough performance and one which made Torres far less indispensable – from Llorente’s introduction, every shot the team registered was from inside the penalty area – twice as many chances nearer the goal, and in half as much time as when Torres was on the pitch.
Vicente Del Bosque had discovered an alternative to the previously irreplaceable striker. Consequently, Torres’ form leading up to and off the back of that World Cup campaign has opened the door for alternatives such as Llorente and now Alvaro Negredo to stake a claim, and as Del Bosque’s team selections against Chile and Liechtenstein demonstrate, Torres is now in direct competition.
Negredo started against Chile in Friday’s friendly, before Torres arrived from the bench after an hour. Then against Liechtenstein Negredo again featured for 60 minutes when he was replaced, this time by Llorente. Del Bosque is still in the process of working out his best forward-line, but in dropping Torres from the matchday squad against Liechtenstein, the indication is that the Chelsea man will find his opportunities to stake a claim diminishing, unless he can find a reaction.
How Del Bosque would wish for Torres to return to the form of the second half of the last decade. His transfer from Atletico Madrid to Liverpool saw the striker make the leap into the top echelon of forwards and by Euro 2008, he had struck up a formidable partnership with Villa, who finished the tournament as top scorer despite missing the final through injury. In his absence, the team were able to turn to Torres, who responded by demonstrating his mettle: racing on to to a Xavi through-ball to dink the ball past Germany’s Jens Lehmann for the winning goal in the competition final.
His goal-threat and energy at the time prompted strike-partner Villa to enthuse: “We
However a barren run at both club and international level – he has not scored for la Seleccion in over a year – has seen the forward now fall at least level, and if not below Llorente and Negredo in Del Bosque’s plans.
With just one goal in the 21 games since his £50m transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea, Del Bosque can no longer justify his first-team place: “He is an important player, but the people selected for the national team are those who do well for their clubs, not the other way round.”
There is concern that the searing burst of pace so pivotal to the former Atletico Madrid player’s game has declined. Many strikers who shared the Spaniard’s physical attributes, such as the Brazilian Ronaldo and Michael Owen, were unable to maintain their electric acceleration beyond their mid-20s. They too struggled with injury and ultimately were no longer the same force.
What that does not explain however, is Torres’ desperation in front of goal. In his pomp at Liverpool he averaged four shots per game. Last season, he continued to average four shots per game – but without the same return. It appears therefore that the quality of his finishing has declined and that, perhaps greater than any other factor, may well be down to a longstanding crisis of confidence.
In dropping Torres not only from his team, but his squad as well against Liechtenstein, Del Bosque is seeking a reaction from his former first-choice centre-forward. It is the first case of a fit Torres being dropped by Spain since a November 2006 friendly against Romania.
To return to starting XI contention at international level, Del Bosque is looking for a reaction from Torres at club level. How well the 27-year-old responds to his Coach’s decision will determine what role he will plays not only at next summer’s European Championships, but with national team to any extent.