Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Duology: Gerrard and Torres

Steven Gerrard, more than most, is familiar with Liverpool’s revolving door of strikers. His illustrious career saw him take to the pitch with Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Luis Suarez, along with many more who cannot claim to be such household names. One by one, each came and went – the captain remained, doggedly turning in performance after performance even as the team around him was in constant flux.

The same fate would ultimately befall the partnership that Gerrard struck up with another forward to come to Anfield; he, like the supporters, could only watch on in horror as Fernando Torres departed for Stamford Bridge in January 2011. However, in the three and a half years prior to this frustratingly familiar end, Gerrard and Torres created something altogether unfamiliar. The unique partnership between the English midfielder and the Spanish forward is still revered on the Kop to this day.

There was huge optimism at Liverpool from the moment Torres signed in the summer of 2007. The 22-year-old had been top scorer at Atletico Madrid for each of their last five La Liga seasons, and had been entrusted with the captaincy since 19. Excitement on Merseyside reached fever pitch when his captain’s armband came loose one game to reveal four words on the inside: You’ll Never Walk Alone. In fact, this had little to do with Liverpool’s anthem, instead referring to the motto that he and a group of friends had adopted, but it reinforced the feeling that Torres belonged at Anfield.

This feeling would only grow following the Spaniard’s start to life at the club. It was immediately apparent that this was the player Gerrard had been crying out for – the instantaneous understanding between the pair was almost beyond belief. As early as his home debut against Chelsea, Torres profited from his first Gerrard assist; the captain set him free with a typically inch-perfect pass, and the striker ghosted beyond Tal Ben Haim before curling the ball effortlessly beyond Petr Cech.

This was a sight to which Liverpool fans would become accustomed. Perhaps the greatest passer of a generation working in tandem with a forward whose movement terrified defences was enough to undo almost any opponent in the path of Benitez’ side; it would take just a month for Torres to complete his first hattrick for the club. Who should set him free of the entire Reading back line for the crowning third goal? Steven Gerrard, of course. In many ways it is hard to pick out the highlights of this pairing, because so many of the great goals were almost carbon copies – even after these first few weeks defences knew exactly what they could expect, but they were helpless to prevent it.

Premier League, Europe, it didn’t matter. The duo was all-conquering: Torres scored his first Champions League goals in a crucial meeting with Porto, converting a Gerrard corner early on before slotting away another chance in the 78th minute. This highlighted his double-threat; few players have been able to boast such a lethal right foot as well as a major aerial presence. Gerrard himself scored from the spot and registered another assist, this time for Crouch, on the way to a 4-1 victory. Together, the pair dragged Liverpool through a tricky group stage. All too regularly it would fall to the duo to deliver results on their own, but more often than not they managed to do so.

It would be a mistake solely to cast Gerrard as the provider and Torres as the finisher. Amongst his array of talents, Gerrard was a consummate goal-scorer in his prime: El Niño was not often the one laying on goals for others, but when he did do so it was invariably the captain steaming in to apply the finishing touch. This is reflected in the numbers from their debut season together, where the two combined to score a remarkable 54 times. This was enough for 4th in the league as well as an eventual run to the Champions League semi-finals.

Ultimately, this was an era in which Liverpool were destined to continually fall just short of glory. In the following campaign, 2008/09, Gerrard and Torres came agonisingly close to the Premier League title that their partnership warranted, but the side could only manage second behind Manchester United despite amassing 86 points. It was cruel that injuries restricted the number of games the pair could play together – the two of them featured in the same starting line-up just twelve times. In a season where the title slipped away as a result of too many frustrating draws, the trophy would surely have found its way to Anfield had the duo been able to play together on even a few more occasions.

As it is, there is no silverware to commemorate the time Gerrard and Torres shared at Liverpool. Off-the-pitch problems at the club began to bubble to the surface in 2009/10 – Xabi Alonso’s departure ended up being the first of many over the course of the next two years, as an array of talent flocked away from what was turning out to be a sinking ship. An ownership dispute that ultimately had to be settled in court sent the club into chaos.

Despite all of this, El Niño managed 22 goals; Gerrard, meanwhile, contributed twelve goals and thirteen assists. It is testament to their partnership that they could produce these figures essentially on their own, at a time when the team around them was collapsing in on itself. Even these two greats did not have the capabilities to deliver trophies at such a turbulent time in Liverpool’s history, but they continued to deliver memories that last to this day.

One goal in particular that is embedded in the minds of supporters came against Everton: it was Gerrard who scored it, charging on to the end of a delightfully improvised flick from Torres to fire past the keeper at his near post. This epitomised the telepathy between the pair – each knew where the other was going, and they were both blessed with the ability to pick the pass. This has since led Torres to declare that Gerrard was “by far the best player [he has] ever played with”. The feeling is mutual: Gerrard has called the Spaniard “an absolute joy and pleasure to play behind”. Though they may have come together at the wrong time in the club’s history, the fact that they came together at all is something worthy of celebrating.

For some, even the memories are now tarnished. The tale of Gerard and Torres cannot be told without reference to the sudden and acrimonious split of January 2011 – murmurings in the background exploded into harsh reality on deadline day, as Torres completed a move to Chelsea. That the switch was to a team which he had repeatedly helped put to the sword was particularly painful: in the context of Liverpool’s bitter rivalry with Chelsea in the preceding few years, this felt like a final concession of defeat. In a cruel twist of fate, the move ultimately signalled the start of a torrid spell for both Torres and Liverpool – El Niño never recreated anything like his best form in London, while his former employers underwent a testing rebuilding phase that is only now truly coming to fruition.

A majority of fans have now made their peace with Torres. Much as it was too painful to admit at the time, nobody could be blamed for wanting to leave the club in that period – the circumstances surrounding the move were far from ideal, and certainly left a sour taste, but such things are sometimes unavoidable. It would be a shame to erase from the history books the sheer joy of the partnership that he struck up with Steven Gerrard; he took one of the greatest midfielders of all time and allowed him to reach new levels, and the result was a privilege to witness. No matter where he has been since, he will always be Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s Number 9.

There was one last bow for the duo at Gerrard’s testimonial in 2016. Anfield rose to welcome back the man who was once a favourite son; all is not quite forgotten, but is mostly forgiven. The connection was still there for all to see – Torres twice flicked the ball through to a rampaging Gerrard in a manner almost painfully reminiscent of that goal against Everton more than seven years previously. The match also brought to the fore the haunting thought of what might have been; Luis Suarez, who had also happily taken up the invitation to return to Anfield to honour Gerrard’s phenomenal career, wreaked havoc alongside Torres. The last decade has seen some exceptional talent at Liverpool, but rarely all together in one place.

Gerrard and Torres, though, did hit their primes together at Liverpool. Had the union occurred a couple of years earlier or later, who knows what might have been for the side; it is foolish to dwell on these hypotheticals, however, when the football actually produced by the pair was magical in its own right. Torres did ultimately end up as another striker through the revolving door, but in all Gerrard’s seventeen years at the club he never had a better partner.

First published on These Football Times as part of the Duology series: https://thesefootballtimes.co/category/duology-footballs-greatest-partnerships/
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Monday, 13 August 2018

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham: Here We Go Again

Strap yourselves in. Liverpool are back, and in some style; West Ham United were put to the sword on the opening day at Anfield. Klopp’s men picked up where they left off during an impressive pre-season, dismantling the Hammers just as they had done to Napoli a week previously. It was an assured performance from front to back, and gave even the most cautious fan reason for optimism.

There is only one place to start, and that is with Naby Keita. The Guinean midfielder was outstanding on his competitive debut for Liverpool, immediately showcasing exactly what he can bring to a midfield that was in need of an injection of dynamism. There will be sterner tests than Pellegrini’s West Ham, whose half-baked high line was only ever going to end one way, but Keita was ruthless in exploiting it. Time and time again he drove at the defence, sprung a pass at exactly the right moment and set a runner free. It was in this manner that the deadlock was broken, just before the twenty-minute mark: Keita released Robertson in space down the left, and the Scot produced an inch-perfect ball across the face of the goal for Salah to turn home. It was a satisfying goal to score – the best teams have got creating unmissable opportunities down to an art form, and Liverpool certainly seem to be improving in this regard.

The chances, already fairly free-flowing, came thicker and faster after the opening goal. Firmino’s selfless square ball could not be turned home by Salah from close range, but it looked a matter of time before Fabianski was beaten again. Sure enough, moments before half time, Milner did excellently to salvage a cross that looked too deep – the defence had switched off, and Sadio Mane was on hand to turn the ball home for Liverpool’s second. This was just one of many excellent contributions from the headband-sporting Milner, who was clearly not experiencing any adverse effects following his fifteen stitches; his renaissance of late has been truly remarkable, and Fabinho may be wondering just how he’s going to break into the team! Gini Wijnaldum, another player who could have shied away in the face of increased midfield competition, put in a typically tidy performance while also posing a little of the added attacking threat he has shown throughout pre-season.

The front three have little to fear in the way of starting status, and they showcased their brilliance once again for the third goal. Firmino embarked upon a typically industrious run before slipping the ball through for Sadio Mane – there was a huge slice of fortune in that the flag should clearly have been raised for offside, but Mane capitalised on the officiating error and slotted the ball away to totally kill off the game. This brace for the Senegalese winger could be a sign of things to come; he has definitely adapted to a more central role in the past few months, a move formalised by his adoption of the number 10 shirt for the new season, and he will be hoping to get on the end of many more moves over the course of the campaign.

Henderson and Shaqiri were soon introduced, a mark of the increased quality of depth that Liverpool now boast. The former Stoke man looked lively on his competitive debut, although with the match already wrapped up the tempo was understandably fairly relaxed. The captain was tidy as ever, keeping things ticking over as Klopp’s side moved towards a near-perfect opening day result. As it happened, things were about to get even better. Daniel Sturridge was introduced for the last five minutes – he has had an astonishingly good pre-season, reminding everyone exactly what he is capable of when he remains fit for a sustained period, and it took just twenty seconds for him to find the net in this cameo. He showed his familiar poacher’s instinct to get on the end of a cross from a corner and turn the ball home, in doing so sending Liverpool to the top of the table.

Now it’s just a small task of staying there for the next thirty-seven weeks. A tough ask, certainly, but one that for the first time in years the squad will feel is not beyond them. Keita looks all set to prove a truly transformative signing in the middle of the park, while Alisson will win points on his own if he even comes close to his form at Roma. Already, his cool distribution is handing Liverpool more control over games. Shaqiri provides much-needed quality cover for the front three, as well as possessing the versatility to drop into midfield when the team really needs to go for it. This amounts to nearly all of last season’s key weaknesses being addressed – and last season wasn’t half bad! In a league of fine margins, these additions could make a big difference. One thing’s for sure: we are in for an exciting season.

See my round-up of all the week's football action over on Colossus Bets:

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

In Profile: Torino

Liverpool round off their pre-season preparations with a visit from Torino.

Torino is one of the most successful sides in Italian history, with seven league titles to their name. Take a look at the profile of Il Toro as they travel to Anfield on 7th August.

Torino was established in 1906, formed by a group of dissidents unhappy with the way that fellow Turin club Juventus was run. Within twenty-five years, the side were well-established in Italian football: 1927/28 saw the club’s first Calcio title.

The side reached the peak of their powers in the 1940s. ‘Grande Torino’, as the legendary side were known, won five consecutive Scudetto titles from 1942 onwards. At one stage, ten of the eleven starters for the national side played their domestic football for Torino.

Tragedy struck in 1949. With the world at their feet, the entire Torino squad were killed in an aeroplane crash following a friendly with Benfica in Lisbon – every player is memorialised in a monument at the site of the disaster. Each year, the squad travel to this site to pay respects and to reflect upon this dark time in the club’s history.

Some difficult times followed in the league, and in 1958/59 the club suffered its first relegation to Serie B. However, an immediate return followed: the club embarked upon a rebuilding project, and in 1975/76 were able to celebrate their first Serie A title since the disaster. Torino failed to win at home for the first time that season when Cesena held them on the final day, but Juventus’ loss against Perugia ensured that it was the maroon half of Turin that were celebrating.

The early 1990s saw Torino’s best run in Europe, as the side ventured all the way to the UEFA Cup final. They defeated Real Madrid along the way, but lost the two-legged final to Ajax on the away goals rule. The following season, Torino were able to win their fifth Coppa Italia.

A period of uncertainty followed, both on and off the pitch. The club went back and forth between the top two divisions, and in 2005 faced bankruptcy. However, Torino has successfully reinstated itself as a staple fixture in Serie A: its current spell in the top flight stretches back to the 2012/13 season.

Last Season
Torino ended a steady season in 9th place. Their key man was Spanish winger Iago Falque, who completed a permanent move from Roma at the start of the season after a successful loan spell. He ended the campaign on twelve goals; Italian striker Andrea Belotti was also able to hit double figures, as the side matched their league finish from the previous season.

Il Toro had won just five league matches by January, and had exited the Coppa Italia to rivals and eventual winners Juventus. This prompted the club to appoint former Watford coach Walter Mazzarri. He immediately went on a five-game unbeaten run – Torino ended the season with thirteen league wins and a respectable 54 points. This was just three points adrift of a spot in the Europa League qualifying round, and the team will likely be aiming for European qualification in the forthcoming campaign.

The Manager
Mazzarri is a seasoned Italian coach. He concluded a playing career in 1995, and has since managed sides including Sampdoria, Napoli and Inter Milan.

His season-long spell in England, at Vicarage Road, ended in a 17th-placed finish. He was criticised in some quarters for his style of play, but departed with the gratitude of fans after securing a third consecutive season of Premier League football for Watford.

His six months at Torino have been positive, and he will be looking to finalise preparations for the new season when he visits Anfield.

The Stadium
Torino shared more than a city with Juventus until 2011, when their neighbours moved out of the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. The ground seats 28,140 – the Olympics reference in its name refers to its use at the 2006 Winter Olympics, while ‘Grande Torino’ is a tribute to the side of the 1940s that lost their lives.