Common wisdom has Lionel Messi of Barcelona as a shoo-in for world footballer of the year. But Fernando Torres of Liverpool wouldn't be a bad choice, either.
If the Spaniard isn't yet the world's best striker, then he's getting close. His gift for scoring decisive goals at decisive times, often from the slenderest of openings, makes Spain a favorite heading for the World Cup in South Africa next June. Torres' latest mesmerizing goal, for his club against Manchester United, had the hypnotic effect of making us forget about the star whose orbit shifted from England's Premier League to Real Madrid this summer. Cristiano who?
For all the criticism of Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez's recruitment policies, he has brought in 70 or so players, some of them duds, in his five seasons in charge, the club record fee paid for Torres in 2007 was the best 20.3 million pounds Benitez ever spent.
Without Torres, Liverpool can look ordinary. With him, they can be sensational, even when he's half-lame, as he was last weekend against United.
Credit Dirk Kuyt with presence of mind for not passing straight to Torres, who was offside, when he collected the ball on the halfway line after 64 intense but goal-less minutes. Instead, the Dutch international passed sideways to Yossi Benayoun, who looked up, took a couple of strides, checked and with millimetered precision threaded the ball past United defenders Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic to Torres, by then back onside.
Torres beat Rio Ferdinand in a sprint onto the pass. He resisted the United defender's attempt to shove him off the ball, nudged it forward with the lightest of touches with his right instep, took two more strides and, instinctively, without looking up, snapped off his shot from the tight angle that flat-footed keeper Edwin van der Sar, scorched past the near post and rattled into the top of the net.
Ferdinand walked away disconsolate. But against such pace and icy-cool finishing there wasn't much more he could have done. Torres' strike, the foundation for a 2-0 win over United, wasn't unlike his winner against Germany in the final of the European Championships in 2008. There, he beat defender Philipp Lahm to Xavi Hernandez's pass and chipped over 'keeper Jens Lehmann to give Spain its first title in 44 years. Again, it was a demonstration of Torres' remarkable composure in front of goal.
Liverpool's No 9 is now the Premier League's top scorer this season with nine goals in nine games. Reminders there of the "White Album" track "Revolution 9" by Liverpool's most famous sons, the Beatles, whose songs Torres played to help improve his English after his arrival in England's northwest. Even more impressive are Torres' 34 goals in 35 home games at Anfield, where, clearly, the 25-year-old feels as welcome as hot tea on a cold day. Such stats are why the Golden Ball winner of 1991, Jean-Pierre Papin, lists Torres, along with Messi and his Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta, as favorites for the trophy that will be awarded Dec. 1 to the world's top footballer.
"One mustn't forget Torres," says the former Marseille and AC Milan striker, who scored 30 goals in 54 games for France. "He is capable of scoring extraordinary and often decisive goals. Liverpool is not the same without him."
That last part is code for Torres' delicate health. His hamstrings proved as fragile as tissue paper last season, when he played in just 24 of Liverpool's 38 league fixtures. Only for 14 of those were he and captain Steven Gerrard fit enough to start together. Yet those matches produced 18 of their joint total of 30 goals, showing how vital their pairing is to Liverpool's hopes of ending its 20-year wait for a 19th league crown.
Torres' latest breakdown has been a groin strain. Only on the coach to Anfield last Sunday did Benitez decide that his player was patched up sufficiently to start against United. "Sometimes 80 percent of Fernando can make a difference," said Benitez. Having inspired Barcelona to a triple crown of Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey last season, Messi would make a deserved Golden Ball winner. So says, among others, 2008 winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who can't be counted out this year, too, given his star performances for league champion United last season and impressive start this season for Real Madrid.
But if Torres stays fit, helps Liverpool secure the league title it craves and/or shines for Spain at the World Cup, then next year's award ceremony could be an entirely different story.