Torres' record will make Barcelona wary
Published 06/04/2012 | 10:26
As Chelsea knocked out Benfica on Wednesday night to secure a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, Pep Guardiola was at the theatre with his wife watching "Incendis", a three-hour long epic tragedy about two siblings tracing their roots amid the traumas of war and fundamentalism. No doubt he got home in time for the highlights.
His decision not to watch the quarter-final second leg in its entirety was more a demonstration of his own peculiarity than any show of disrespect towards Chelsea. But it was also representative of the way most Barcelona fans sense that beating the fifth-best team in England will be easier than beating the best side in Italy.
Milan were dangerous as a unit, Chelsea's threat will come more from individuals, they argue. Chelsea are respected in Barcelona for their resilience, still hanging around the latter stages of the Champions League despite the fact that most of the key performers have seen better seasons, and that resilience was never more in evidence than against Napoli in the last 16 when all Spanish commentators had the Italians marked down as quarter-finalists.
But Chelsea's quarter-final performances against Benfica were far less awe-inspiring – and they were seen stumbling through despite playing against a team with no recognised central defenders and who had a man sent off before half-time. What will best guard them against complacency is Fernando Torres, the man who became a personal nightmare for Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes during his time at Atletico Madrid.
Such was the Chelsea No 9's effectiveness against Barcelona that when it became clear he would leave Madrid in 2007, the club considered signing him and supporters were ready to accept it on the grounds that "if he's playing for us, he can't score against us".
In the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, when Barcelona won La Liga under Frank Rijkaard, they were near-invincible at home with one notable exception. They were beaten at Nou Camp 2-0 and 3-1 by Atletico Madrid in those campaigns and in both matches Torres scored twice.
"We were very clear about how to play them, taking into account they were much stronger than us. Chelsea are at a higher level than Atletico were and we would be able to take them on," he said last season. That "way of playing them" was to use Torres' pace against Barcelona's high defensive line.
There is huge respect for Didier Drogba, but there is a belief that he would provide less of a threat to Gerard Pique than Torres spinning off the shoulder of the last defender and into the wide open spaces of Nou Camp. Drogba might be motivated by settling scores from three seasons ago, but Torres is not exactly short of added incentive.
He was left out of Vicente Del Bosque's last Spain squad and knows with a big performance on Spanish soil on 24 April he will put an end to the debate about whether or not he should be taken to Poland and Ukraine to help Spain retain the title his goal helped them win four years ago.
But it is the kind of state Chelsea might be in when they reach the second leg that gives reason for optimism among the holders. Both sides have three games to play before the first leg but Barcelona will have 24 hours longer to recover from their last game than Chelsea. It has also not gone unnoticed that with Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz and Ashley Cole all one yellow card away from suspension they could face the second leg without three-quarters of their first-choice back four although Carles Puyol is also one late tackle from missing the return.
Barça are an even more difficult opponent with a referee who blows every shirt pull as Bjorn Kuipers did on Tuesday night. The referee in the first leg had been far more lenient and Milan's chances of holding out for 90 minutes were improved as a consequence.
When Jose Mourinho mischievously ruled out Chelsea in midweek after Real Madrid finished the job against Apoel Nicosia he alluded to that. "Barça will be in the final" he said. "They are not just favourites, they are the super favourites." Adding that Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who said after Milan's exit that he now knew what Mourinho meant when he complained about the refereeing at Nou Camp – was "an intelligent kid, who had just learned too late".
If Chelsea can stay in the tie beyond Stamford Bridge, then Mourinho will even be able to lend a hand. Barça face Real Madrid the weekend before the second leg and Mourinho's Madrid can take a huge step towards the Spanish title and give Chelsea's opponents their most difficult match of the season so far at the same time.
Chelsea's problem, however, is that such are the memories of Andres Iniesta's late winner and the entire Barcelona bench storming down the touchline to celebrate they can't wait to go back to the Bridge. Chelsea's form this season – the Napoli second leg apart – is giving them, and their theatre-loving coach, no reason to believe it won't be a happy return.
Fernando Torres scored seven goals in 10 games against Barcelona during his time at Atletico Madrid, all of which came in La Liga. He has only scored more League goals against Villarreal (8).
Torres is yet to play against Barcelona for another team.