Saturday, 21 December 2019

Liverpool, champions of the world

World champions: Liverpool lift the Club World Cup (BBC screenshot)

They did it the hard way, but after 120 minutes of hard work Liverpool were crowned world champions in Doha. A stubborn Flamengo side and some questionable officiating were ultimately not enough to thwart one of the greatest club sides ever assembled, who further secured their legacy by adding another trophy to an ever-expanding collection.

The Premier League leaders were made to fight for it, but they have shown time and time again that they are more than willing to do so. The official status as the best on the planet is really only telling people what they already knew: this team is something special.

The victory delivers the first Club World Cup in Liverpool’s storied history. Anfield has seen some great sides over the years, but now for the first time they can sing of ‘the best football team in the world’ backed up by silverware.

They should have been 1-0 up within the opening minute. A simple chip over the top found Roberto Firmino clear of the back line, but he could not cope with an awkward bounce and fired over the top under pressure from the recovering centre-half. The early barrage did not relent, as Liverpool continued to exploit the space in behind – minutes later Klopp’s side were in again, this time with Salah, but Naby Keita also struck over from the Egyptian’s pull-back.

Memories of the 2005 final were conjured up as the minutes ticked by without a goal. The champions of Europe continued to dominate, but rather than a Rogerio Ceni masterclass it was profligate finishing keeping the scores level. There was some solace in the fact that Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa was being completely stifled, but with red shirts flooding forward routinely there were creeping fears that one counter-attack could make things extremely uncomfortable.

These doubts were hardly assuaged by two near-misses from Bruno Henrique, who repeatedly found joy down Trent Alexander-Arnold’s flank. One of these opportunities came from a poor piece of distribution from Alisson, providing a stark demonstration of how one lapse in concentration could swing the game. Indeed, as the half progressed the Brazilian side started to move into the ascendency – a wildly skewed clearance from the usually imperious Virgil van Dijk summed up the loss of composure.

A series of soft free-kicks given by the referee did not help Liverpool’s attempts to regain their early rhythm, but the officials cannot be blamed for the sloppy passes and naïve defending that dogged Liverpool’s game throughout much of the first period. Flamengo looked sharper and hungrier: their semi-final did take place earlier, but excuses and mitigation is not what wins teams the title of world champions. This was a long way from Liverpool at its devastating best.

A strong start to the second half was needed. The Premier League leaders obliged, but in a cruel reflection of the first half Firmino once again failed to convert from close range. This time he was tantalisingly close, crashing his strike against the inside of the post and away. The challenge lay in sustaining the pressure – Salah flashed one wide moments later, offering more encouragement to those who had travelled from Merseyside.

Instead of the breakthrough, there came a creeping sense of déjà vu. Following the two big chances for Liverpool to take the lead, Flamengo found their feet – it was only a good Alisson save that prevented Gabigol from opening the scoring. This earned the former Internacional stopper even more jeers from the numerous fans who had made the pilgrimage from Rio de Janeiro.

The hour mark came and went without a goal. Extra-time would not have been high on Klopp’s Christmas list, with the festive schedule already packed – the German was visibly frustrated on the touchline as his side toiled. Nonetheless, an extra thirty minutes looked increasingly likely as both sides struggled to create. The problems were intensified by a nasty injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, forced off after a hefty blow to his ankle.

Captain Jordan Henderson nearly averted the extra period with a lovely strike from long distance, but he was denied hero status by a smart diving save. It then looked as though Salah would be handed the chance to win it from the spot after Mane broke clear and went down under the challenge from Rafinha. However, a lengthy VAR check - purportedly over whether the incident occurred inside or outside the box - somehow contrived to give no foul at all. The match continued into extra time.

By this point proceedings were threatening to descend into farce, as the Brazilians tried everything to hold on. The theatrics and gamesmanship, present throughout the 90 minutes, were turned up to a new level: the highlight was undoubtedly Gabigol departing on a stretcher with cramp.

But this Liverpool side did not lift the European Cup and reach the summit of the Premier League without being able to fight to the bitter end. In the 99th minute, the deadlock was finally broken. Fittingly, it was Firmino who found the net at the third time of asking. Mane played him through after a defence-splitting pass from Henderson, and he showed the composure to sit the goalkeeper down and fire it into the unguarded net.

The rest of the match passed as an exercise in game management. Liverpool showed the maturity that has been their biggest area of improvement in recent seasons, keeping chances to a minimum. Even the best sides are subject to some jitters in the last minutes of a final, and hearts were in mouths when Lincoln skied a chance from a great position, but Klopp’s side saw it out to earn the crown of world champions.

It was not the finest game that this team of stars has played, but it was perhaps the most fitting way to reach the top of the world. There is class and brilliance, but there is resilience and guile in equal measure. It is this which separates them from even the great sides of old, none of whom ever triumphed on this stage: it may well be the same qualities which see the Premier League drought ended come the end of the season.

Friday, 13 December 2019

A-Z of the 2000s: Fernando Torres

This piece was originally published as part of a series on These Football Times:

A young Torres at Atletico

Few names evoke the first footballing decade of the millennium more than Fernando Torres. He fits the 2000s brief irresistibly, graduating to Atletico Madrid’s first team in 2001 and peaking at Anfield prior to his 2011 departure. His subsequent move to Chelsea, short-lived stint at AC Milan, emotional return to Atletico and intriguing swansong in Japan are more than mere footnotes in his remarkable career, but history will remember Torres as the dominant forward he was in the 2000s.

Torres is nicknamed El Nino: The Kid. Now 35, his retirement announced, the epithet remains – he is immortalised as the fresh-faced talent who made his way through the Atletico Madrid youth system. Born in Fuenlabrada, Torres made the short journey into the capital in 1995 having scored fifty-five league goals for youth side Rayo 13. He had no hesitation when Atletico came calling, having been imbibed with his grandfather’s love for the Rojiblancos.

Success in the academy followed, and it became increasingly clear to the club that they might have somebody special on their hands. It was of course not yet known that he would go on to define an era, but those who make it their business to do so were certainly keeping a watchful eye on his progress. Just a year after joining Atletico he was the subject of a failed raid by their city rivals, Real Madrid. In 1998, he triumphed in the prestigious Nike Cup, and was subsequently voted the best player in Europe in his age group – the Spaniard is separated from Cristiano Ronaldo by less than a year, but it was not the Sporting Lisbon talent who was making the biggest waves.

As a result of his ever-rising stock, Torres had a release clause set at three million euros before he had even turned sixteen. This was included in his first professional contract, signed in 1999. The age of El Nino was about to dawn.

It was apparent by the turn of the century that Torres was ready to move on from youth football. A cracked shinbone briefly halted his meteoric rise, but he was nonetheless handed his senior club debut before the end of the 2000/01 season amidst a clamour amongst fans to see the boy who had been setting the academy alight. He showed no signs of slowing down: his first senior goal followed just a week after his first appearance. Anyone who had not been paying him attention was forced to do so in the summer of 2001 - Torres travelled to the u16s European Championships with Spain, where it became abundantly clear that The Kid had grown up. He departed a victor, having scored a tournament-high seven goals, including the winning strike in the final against France. Unsurprisingly, he was named as the best player of the tournament.

He returned to the Estadio Vicente Calderon as a bona fide member of the first-team setup. His goal output finally took something of a dip, the first indication that Torres might actually be human, but the six league goals paint an incomplete picture. The integration into the senior side was a relatively smooth one: he featured 36 times on the way to Atletico’s return to La Liga. His first goal, against Levante, was a vivid indication that Torres’ talents translated to the senior tier; an audacious lob from the edge of the box gave fans a taste of the brilliance to which they would grow accustomed. Atletico Madrid were promoted as champions.

Torres duly arrived in La Liga in the summer of 2002 having established himself as a mainstay in Atletico Madrid’s starting eleven. The goals that had briefly been in short supply came flooding back: El Nino netted thirteen times in the Spanish top flight, making him the club’s top scorer and helping to guide Atletico to an 11th-place finish. By the end of the next campaign, he was the third-top scorer in the whole league – his contributions dragged the Rojiblancos to an impressive 7th place. Still a teenager, he was rewarded with the captain’s armband.

This was not the Atletico Madrid that modern fans would recognise. Torres was made captain of a ship in disarray, and year after year was called upon to steady it. The club’s own sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, admitted shortly before the striker departed that it was “ridiculous” that he was still there. There was an undeniable truth in this, and it was hardly surprising that Torres began to grow weary with carrying his boyhood club: he contributed the most goals in 2004/5, just as he had done in the preceding two campaigns. And then he did the same the next season. And the next. In total, by the summer of 2007, he had amassed 75 goals in 173 top flight games and almost single-handedly kept Atletico in La Liga. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the club would never have grown into the powerhouse it is today were it not for the contributions of Fernando Torres.

The favourite son could not stay at home forever. Torres had been repeatedly linked with a move to England from almost as soon as he reached Atletico’s first team, but until this point the captaincy had weighed heavily enough on him to keep him anchored. It was the words written on the inside of that armband that ultimately provided the clue to his next destination: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Torres trains for Liverpool
In fact, the link to Liverpool was little more than incidental – Torres and a group of friends had simply liked the motto when they heard it and chosen to adopt it as their own, and while the forward was unwilling to get the sentiment tattooed, he chose to carry it with him in another form. Nobody was even meant to see it, but the armband came loose one game. From this moment the move seemed almost like fate.

On a more mundane level, it was Rafael Benitez rather than ethereal forces that brought Torres to Merseyside. The manager broke Liverpool’s transfer record to unite with his fellow Spaniard, reportedly agreeing to a fee in the region of £25 million. Any doubters were quickly silenced: El Nino, now in his floppy-haired phase, was reaching his purest form.

No longer tasked with carrying the entire hopes of a football club, Torres played with a newfound freedom at Liverpool. Equally, Steven Gerrard was palpably relieved at having someone with whom he could share his own burden – the two struck up an immediate chemistry. Torres was suddenly receiving the kind of service he had never before experienced, and he thrived off it. It only took until his home debut to get off the mark: Chelsea got their first glimpse of a man who would go on to torment them, who they could only eventually stop by buying him. Gerrard picked him out, he breezed beyond Tal Ben Haim and slotted it away. Simple. Ruthless.

Torres continued in this vein throughout the campaign. Beyond the adoring walls of the Calderon there had always been lingering doubts in Spain about whether he really had the clinical touch required of an elite striker, but for those keeping an eye on his progress in England these concerns were being emphatically allayed. Torres plundered 24 league goals in his debut season, chipping in with four assists for good measure. He also contributed a hattrick in his only League Cup appearance, and notched six goals on the way to the Champions League semi-finals. The sheer variety of these goals was almost as impressive as the number - he was already achieving the kind of hero status he had earned at Atletico.

The ultimate vindication came at Euro 2008. The countrymen who had questioned him, had viewed him as a fun but frustrating forward, bowed down in adulation as he scored the goal that crowned the start of Spain’s international dominance. As Jens Lehman came rushing out he could only watch on in horror as Torres stole in before him, easing Phillip Lahm away before producing a deft chip into the corner for the only goal of the final. The strength, the composure, the delicacy: only occasionally does a forward boast such a complete skill set, and one who can excel in all these qualities at the biggest moments is rarer still.

Torres duly returned to Liverpool as a European champion, having finally earned universal recognition as one of the game’s best strikers. The Anfield crowd were well and truly besotted – nobody ever thought that there could one day be a number 9 to surpass Robbie Fowler, a man so good he was simply nicknamed ‘God’, but this felt like the second coming. In his first game back, he fired one in from well outside the box. After an injury-enforced interlude, he returned to sink Everton with a brace in the Merseyside derby. Scousers were growing their hair out. A proliferation of dogs named ‘Nando’ could be found throughout the city. He was the focus of a Nike advert that encapsulated the extent to which he had captured Liverpool hearts and minds. This was someone special, and everyone watching him knew it.

Sadly, the injuries were soon to start mounting up. His hamstring issue recurred and proved troublesome for much of the 2008/09 campaign, such that he only managed 24 appearances in the league. He still found time to score a decisive brace against Chelsea, and produce an iconic ‘five times’ celebration after scoring in a 4-1 victory over Manchester United, but as the decade came to a close it began to become apparent that Torres was slowly descending from his dizzying peak.

Even injury-plagued, though, he was able to make the PFA Team of the Year for a second consecutive season. In the last match of the campaign he made it fifty Liverpool goals in all competitions since joining, a landmark reached even more quickly than Fowler had managed. He marked the occasion with a bullet header, generating improbable power from an awkward position to send the ball flying into the top corner. Head, feet, it did not matter: when he made it to the pitch, he would take his chances.

Eighteen league goals followed in 2009/10: this was once again a return of almost a goal a game, as the season would ultimately end for Torres in April after a knee issue required surgery. By this point Liverpool were descending into farce on par with the sort that Torres had left behind at Atletico, and he once again found himself a shining light in a team largely bereft of direction. He had left his homeland craving titles, and they were looking ever more distant.

An eventual move was thus almost inevitable, although this did not prevent the manner of the departure breaking Liverpool hearts. Chelsea parted with £50 million to acquire their old foe on a dramatic January deadline day in 2011, but in truth the London club never really received the world-beater they thought they had signed. It was little surprise that Torres’ body began to betray him after close to a decade of carrying his sides: the signs had been there while he was still at Liverpool, and it was only ever a shadow of El Nino that pulled on a Chelsea shirt.

He did at least gain the titles that had for so long eluded him – personal triumph was traded for European glory. These accolades were no less than his career warranted, even if he was not pivotal in guiding Chelsea to the successes. Factoring in later silverware from his return to Atletico, his honours list is now an extensive one: Champions League winner, two-time Europa League champion and FA Cup victor reads very nicely alongside the title of European and World champion.

It is the period where his domestic trophy cabinet remained barren, however, for which he will principally be remembered. The Torres of the 2000s may not always have been blessed with world class teammates, but he was good enough to win the hearts of two cities - and eventually a nation.