Is it too late for Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez to revive Fernando Torres?
Even in the darkest moments of the two years in which they have been apart, Rafael Benitez has seen a faint light flickering in the football of Fernando Torres.
There was the September day last year, for example, when Torres left Old Trafford with the memory of one of the most excruciating misses of his career - the shanked shot with the goal yawning open before him. When I met Benitez less than a week after that event he had the salt and pepper pots out on a Liverpool hotel tablecloth to demonstrate how the chance, which Torres would have scored with a blindfold on at the Anfield Road end, was a minor irrelevance compared with the moment when his former player made a short pass and raced 30 metres to receive the ball back, later in that game. "Sometimes when you are not mentally ready you say, 'Oh, I passed the ball, that's it.' But you could see he wanted to be involved and take the responsibility," Benitez told me. A meticulous observer of Torres always, he saw this as a fleeting hint of a nascent recovery.
History has suggested otherwise.
There was something mildly tragic at Stamford Bridge late on Wednesday night about the way Benitez defended the player who cannot score, declaring "it's not easy when you're playing against lots of defenders" - as if Torres ever really gave a damn about any of them when he was a prince among men on Merseyside.
It is tempting to think we will never again see the same player who took a ball out of an azure blue sky at Old Trafford in March 2009 and destroyed Nemanja Vidic in way that we hadn't seen before and haven't since.
Torres scored 81 times in 142 matches for Liverpool and has found the net 19 times in 89 appearances for Chelsea. Statistics, body language, the look on his face: whichever way you cut it, it feels like our appreciation of Torres will always be a retrospective one.
The picture is more complex than that, however, because somewhere in the analysis we need to assess how grossly unsuitable Chelsea and their football have been to bring out the best in Torres. When crushing centre halves with his pace at Anfield, he was working off the sure-fire certainty that somewhere, not far behind him, was Steven Gerrard, whose default thought when he received the ball was to look out for Nando. Gerrard has had his critics for always seeking to make the Hollywood pass, but Torres will tell you he dined out on them. Chelsea's stroller style - backwards, sideways, frontways, any-which-way - just hasn't suited a striker who has not lost those intuitive movements, as Benitez pointed out over the lunch table. It's just that by the time the ball reaches him it's too late. He's on his heels, flat-footed. The element of surprise has gone.
Benitez will look to rectify this, but it will take time. For now his more cautious approach - with two lines of four when Chelsea are out of possession, judging by what he have seen in 180 minutes of football - mean that Torres is even further removed from the players who might supply him. But the Benitez philosophy has always been to destroy opponents, rapier-like, when breaking out of structures like that. If the abuse and drought carry on like this, you feel that Benitez may genuinely last no more than two months in the job. But if he gets the chance to build on that defensive foundation, then there will be rapid passes for Torres to feed on at last. In Juan Mata and Oscar there are finally players capable of making them.
The biggest challenge for Benitez is to restore Torres to a psychological state which will enable him to take them. Confidence is the key component of most players' game and while there will be some, like Cristiano Ronaldo or Mario Balotelli, who can view disaster with disdain, in Torres we are witnessing the public disintegration of a deeply introspective soul. He's always been a thinker - he spent six months at university studying business and management before his career took off at his beloved Atletico Madrid - and has never been the kind of individual capable of brushing away expectations. Consider the 2001-02 season when, despite Atletico's promotion back to La Liga, he added only six goals to the giddy heights of his debut campaign, the previous year. He was devastated. "I'd had a very bad year after all the expectation everybody had about me," he reflected several years later. And though he was elevated to the captaincy of Atleti at the age of 20, the responsibility did not sit well again. "An intelligent, cerebral man who is neither corrupted by success nor destroyed by failure," is how Antonio Sanz, Torres agent, described him to the Financial Times earlier this year.
The torture is written across his face. He knows only too well that he is a £50m buy. He knows that he is not to Chelsea's fans what he was to Liverpool's. The opprobrium for his old mentor, Benitez, and his acute awareness that the two are linked inextricably at the Bridge won't help. But don't discount what effect Benitez might have on him. This is the player whom Benitez persuaded to hole up for two days in a Liverpool apartment, watching Liverpool FC DVDs, in 2006, so that the club could keep his signing a secret. Benitez's Champions League Dreams book charts an extraordinary closeness.
Restore the Torres belief and Benitez will restore the Torres pace. "They always say the first two yards are in your head," says James Scowcroft, the former Ipswich Town and England under-21 striker, now a football analyst and Independent contributor. "He's 28 - not 35. A player who is confident will be able to find that speed. Pace is in your head."
Amid our narrow obsessions about the Premier League, it has been rather overlooked that Torres won the Golden Boot at this summer's European Championships, when his superior number of assists took him ahead of five others who scored three goals. As a Champions League winner, is he not also a Balon d'Or candidate? someone wondered aloud on Twitter earlier this week. Not really, but salvation can be his, if anyone in west London will allow Benitez the time and patience to help him to it.