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Noughties Nines: Fernando Torres – El Niño

From an early age Fernando Torres carried a weight of expectation. Regarded as a beacon of hope at Atletico Madrid, he was thrust into the side as a fresh-faced and freckled teenager, tasked with taking the team to new heights.

Torres was handed the captaincy at Atletico aged just 19, having risen through the ranks at the club he had followed since childhood. Having inherited a love for Los Rojiblancos from his grandfather, he became the player those on the terraces most resonated with.

El Niño, or The Kid, as he became known joined the Atletico ranks at the age of 11, having earned a trial at the capital club following a prolific 55-goal campaign for youth side Rayo 13.

 

Torres’ stock began to rise and Atletico were well aware of the talent in their ranks. Voted as the best player in Europe at his age group after helping the club’s u15 side to the prestigious Nike Cup, he signed his first professional contract soon after. The Spanish starlet would not have to wait long for his first-team breakthrough.

He made his senior debut for an Atletico side languishing in the Segunda División in 2000/01. The following season, he scored six league goals as Luis Aragonés side were promoted back to the top tier as champions.

Torres cemented his place in the side upon the club’s return to La Liga and soon enhanced his status as Spain’s most exciting young talent. He netted 13 league goals to finish as the club’s leading scorer in 2002/03, including a brilliant individual goal against Deportivo La Coruna and the opener in a 3-0 thrashing of Barcelona. Torres had arrived in La Liga, and he finished third in the race for the Pichichi Trophy the following season.

Europe’s elite had been alerted and Chelsea were among the clubs to have tried and failed to prise Torres from Madrid. His importance and influence continued to grow at the Vicente Calderón and – before he had even left his teens – he was awarded the captain’s armband.

Having had a role in ending Atletico’s first exile from the top tier since 1934, he was now keeping the club alive in the top division. Torres finished as the club’s leading goalscorer in five straight seasons, scoring 91 goals in 244 appearances.

His talent brought a sense of inevitability regarding an exit however, and each summer it appeared harder for Atletico to keep the homegrown hero.

Liverpool eventually won the race for his signature, parting with a club-record £20m to bring Torres to Anfield. A move to Merseyside had been backed since images of Torres’ armband at Atletico became public, coincidentally emblazoned with the Reds’ You’ll Never Walk Alone motto.

Within fifteen minutes of his home debut, Torres announced his arrival. Steven Gerrard’s outside-of-the-boot pass released the record signing, who burst beyond Chelsea’s Tal Ben-Haim before rolling home an inch-perfect finish. It would be the start of a prosperous partnership between the Spaniard and the Liverpool captain.

Torres ended the season with 24 league goals, eclipsing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for the most prolific debut season from a foreign player in England.

He finished as runner-up for the Premier League’s Golden Boot and became the first Liverpool player to score 20 league goals since Robbie Fowler in 1995/96, a haul which included scoring in eight consecutive home games.

In one season Torres had become as loved in Liverpool as he was adored at Atletico, with the ‘Torres Bounce’ becoming a frequent soundtrack to fixtures at Anfield.

His campaign included stunning individual goals against Inter Milan and Arsenal, as the Reds reached the Champions League semi-finals.

He went to that summer’s European Championship in the finest form of his career, returning as a European champion after helping Spain to a drought-breaking success.

La Roja had been cautiously optimistic heading into the tournament and shedded their tag as perennial underachievers with success in Austria and Switzerland.

Torres scored the decisive goal to end Spain’s four decade wait for major tournament success, lifting a delicate finish over the onrushing Jens Lehmann to score the only goal of the final win over Germany.

It was a goal that kickstarted a period of unprecedented international dominance for the Spanish, who added the World Cup in 2010 and retained the European Championship two years later.

Torres had rushed back from injury to play a bit-part role in the first of those triumphs, but won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012, coming off the bench to score in the 4-0 final thrashing of Italy.

He finished third in the Ballon d’Or rankings in 2008, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Standing on the podium alongside two players who would share a duopoly on the award for the next decade, El Niño was now a man and among the world’s premier performers.

Injuries impacted Torres’ 2008/09 campaign, as hamstring problems plagued his season. When fit, however, he remained a lethal presence.

Torres’ game was built on speed and deceptive strength, operating on the shoulder of the last defender as he awaited passes in behind. Explosive and direct, he was a menace to Premier League defences, an always willing runner with a cool head around goal.

Liverpool finished as runners-up during the 2008/09 season, one which arguably saw the best of the Torres-Gerrard tandem. The Spaniard scored a brilliant late brace against Chelsea, and was instrumental in emphatic wins over Real Madrid (4-0) and Manchester United (4-1).

He tormented Nemanja Vidic during the latter of those wins, robbing the Serbian of possession in the build-up to his equaliser at Old Trafford. Vidic was as tough an opponent as Premier League forwards faced, but often found his kryptonite in The Kid.

In early April he scored one of his greatest Liverpool goals. Blackburn were the visitors to Anfield, when a clipped pass forward from Jamie Carragher had the Spaniard scampering away from goal.

One cushioned touch on his chest set the bouncing ball, before swivelling to fire an unstoppable effort up and over the goalkeeper to open the scoring.

Torres continued to find the net with unerring ease, scoring 18 goals in 22 league appearances during the 2009/10 season. It was a season curtailed as a result of knee surgery however, and marked the beginning of the end for Torres, whose form suffered following the arrival of Roy Hodgson as manager.

Having joined Liverpool to win major trophies, he had gone three-and-a-half seasons without silverware. Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano had both departed for Spanish superpowers, with an increasingly frustrated Torres and Gerrard struggling to keep Liverpool moving forward.

Torres’ unrest reached a crescendo in the closing stages of the January transfer window in 2011, with the submission of a transfer request. Three days later he departed on deadline day, joining Chelsea in a £50m British transfer-record deal.

Chelsea had been long-term admirers of Torres and had been regularly on the receiving end of his best performances. However, the version of the forward who arrived in west London paled in comparison to his Liverpool prime.

He went 903 minutes of football without a goal before opening his account and scored just once in his first 18 appearances in all competitions. His form did improve during his first full campaign, while the team honours that had proved elusive at club level finally arrived.

Chelsea won a Champions League and FA Cup double in 2011/12. Torres  – while struggling for form and favour – scored a crucial goal to eliminate Barcelona in the semi-finals, as the Blues were crowned European champions for the first time.

He added the Europa League the following season and scored 22 goals in all competitions, but his best bits were fleeting as his body began to fail him.

“I was old enough to find solutions and I didn’t do it,” Torres told talkSPORT when discussing his time at Chelsea.

“I’m happy I made the move because I won the trophies that I wanted. I played good football but I didn’t; do it every weekend, and in any big club in the world if you don’t perform every weekend, it’s not good enough.”

He departed Chelsea to sign for AC Milan on loan, before making a romantic return to Atletico, where he added a second Europa League winners’ medal to finally win silverware with his boyhood side.

His career came to a close after a short spell in Japan, the homeland of the anime series Captain Tsubasa, which had first pushed an impressionable Torres to take up football as a child. It was, in its own way, a fitting finale to a career which incorporated huge highs and sizeable lows.

Torres’ rise was rapid and his decline even more so. He was ridiculed during his seasons of struggle, his body language painting the picture of a man coming to terms with his fall from grace. There was, however, emotions of sadness from those who had watched his blistering best.

From his boyhood club to the elite of European football, his finest football saw Torres carry the dreams of fanatical fanbases in Madrid and Merseyside. As explosive and exciting as any centre-forward in Europe at that time, he was more than good enough to do so.

Read – Iconic Duos: Gerrard and Torres – Liverpool’s lethal pairing

Read Also – Noughties Nines: The irrepressible, David ‘El Guaje’ Villa

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