He was gone before Richard Dunne could even react. Before anyone could. Fernando Torres accelerated past the Ireland centre-back, cruised beyond Stephen Ward and sent the ball screeching into the top corner, taking all the doubts and the debates with it. Three minutes and 49 seconds was all it took. Running towards the stands, he lifted a finger to his ear. Now what? Almost two years later, the Chelsea striker had scored a competitive goal again. By the end of the game he would have another. Vindication came with great velocity.
Torres, who is nicknamed El Nino, had found the net in a friendly against the United States in June 2011 and against South Korea last month but he had not scored a competitive goal since Liechtenstein in September 2010. He had lost his form so badly that some wondered if he was finished and he admitted that he did not expect to be making it to Poland this summer. Even Vicente del Bosque, so quick to support him, so fond of him, the man who took him to the World Cup despite not being fully fit and defended him from the criticism, had left him out of the Spain squad twice this spring.
In the end, Torres did make it but in the opening game he had not started, a midfielder chosen ahead of him. When he came on, he could not take his best chances. The familiar jokes returned. The false No9 tag was applied to him. There was a moment, 16 minutes in, when Dunne cut back on the touchline, turning past Torres and sending him sliding by and off the pitch.That might have been seized on as somehow symbolic before. As might another opportunity where he raced through, pulled away from Shay Given, turned and chipped the ball straight into the goalkeeper’s arms. Not now.
When Torres skidded by and Dunne strolled away, there were ironic cheers from the Irish fans but they had lost their sting. His goal could be considered a moment of catharsis, the complex gone. The jokes too. He could have been eying Given and thinking: “Can I play you every week?” Torres had gone six months without a club goal when he beat the Aston Villa goalkeeper for Chelsea on 31 March. Here, he beat him again. Twice. The first of them with the kind of speed, power and accuracy that had made him so feared.
Four minutes later he turned his volley past the post after Sergio Busquets’s knock down. This was not the perfect performance but there were other good moments: a neat back heel was blocked, a clever ball across the face of the area, and that sense of the menace once more, even if the real moment of genius came from David Silva when he scored the second.
And then, with 20 minutes to go, another goal. Silva slotted the ball through and Torres took two touches. The second seemed short, his stride almost taking him beyond the ball, but he curled it right-footed past Given.Three’s company
The goal was Torres’s 30th for Spain, making him the country’s third top scorer, only behind Raúl on 44 and David Villa on 51. Those goals, which include the winner at the European Championships four years ago, have come in 95 games. There was vindication for Del Bosque, too. For the second game in a row, his first-choice striker had scored. The issue had become an obsession: false nine or No9? Spain had looked threatening when Torres came on with 20 minutes to go against Italy and although that threat had not materialised both José Mourinho and Luis Aragonés, the former Spain coach, insisted that Torres should start. Without a striker, Mourinho had insisted, Spain were "sterile".
Del Bosque implied that he saw Torres as a player for the final minutes when the game became stretched, not necessarily as a starter.
But the Spain coach also complained that the knives had been sharpened before he had even had a chance to rearrange his bench. Here, he did. Three minutes and 49 seconds later, Torres had scored. When he was taken off with 20 minutes to go, Del Bosque had acted again, Torres having scored twice. “I’ve been lucky today to be selected for the game but if the manager decides to play a different striker, it’s OK,” Torres said. “I didn’t know I was in the bus until two hours before the game.”
Cesc Fábregas was waiting to replace Torres. He too scored, stepping away from James McClean to score a brilliant fourth. That’s now two for Spain’s No9 and two for Spain’s false No9.