Early Doors

The beginning of the end for Fernando Torres?

On a night when Rafa Benitez’s popularity took another plunge following a 2-0 defeat to Swansea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge, and Branislav Ivanovic committed two horrendous errors to gift goals to Michu and Danny Graham, Chelsea fans were not short of villains as they watched another trophy possibly escape their grasp.

But they managed to locate another. When his number came up in the 81st minute – after another performance that contained as much threat as Lisa Simpson’s Non-Threatening Boys magazine – Fernando Torres trudged over to the sideline and, when his name was read out, was greeted with a distinctly mixed reaction by Chelsea fans, who had clamoured for his removal, singing "We want Demba Ba."

There have been murmurs of discontent of late, but this appeared to be the moment when patience was finally exhausted in a man who cost £50 million but has produced only rank mediocrity for large swathes of his time at Stamford Bridge. Once the most feared striker in Britain, Torres is now merely the most ridiculed.

Ba, cheered loudly after having scored twice on his debut, promptly gave Torres a nine-minute lesson in the art of centre-forward play: going close with two headers, almost winning a penalty and being unfortunate to have a fine goal disallowed for offside. All in the time it takes to sketch out and colour in a ‘Rafa Out’ sign.

One thing is for certain: there is no longer any strand of reason or logic, no matter how obscure or tenuous, that suggests that Torres should start for Chelsea ahead of their January acquisition from Newcastle. Ba is a proper striker; Torres, it is sad to say, is not. Not anymore.

The dashing young talent who once terrorised Manchester United has become a shell of a man. Gilded and ultra-expensive, but fragile and hollow inside. A Faberge Egg of a player.

It is said his perpetual presence in the starting XI is because he is a favourite of Roman Abramovich – as Andriy Shevchenko once was before him – but even Chelsea’s owner must realise his £50m investment has now become a toxic asset. The sprightly figure who cut through defences for Liverpool is consigned to history; in his place a directionless, clumsy replica.

If it is Torres who is asked to start against Stoke City on Saturday then there will be something seriously amiss.

Angst over the money wasted on Torres was only amplified by the fact that Swansea's opener was scored by a Spaniard who has had a prolific season, and cost only £2 million.

Michu was at it again - the summer signing scoring his 16th goal of the season with a tremendous left-foot finish past Ross Turnbull following a terrible error from Ivanovic. With an international call-up on the horizon, there appears to no stopping the man few had heard of before his move to the Premier League.

Scoring 15 goals in La Liga last season should have been a clue as to his ability, but even Arsene Wenger claimed recently that Michu was "a guy who disappeared a little bit. He was in clubs where he was bombed out."

It wasn't strictly true - but he has certainly exploded this season and a strong of bigger clubs are becoming collateral damage.

As Michael Laudrup said: “I would never expect a new player to come in and score so many goals, but I can’t say what expectation I had for Michu. What he is doing, in terms of goals, is incredible, particularly when you think he’s never been a No 9. He’s always been an offensive midfielder coming from deeper. But one chance, one goal today. That’s incredible. You’d pay a lot of money for that. He was the bargain of the season, we know that.”

To even compare the two Spanish strikers is a cruel act at the moment: Michu has found himself the perfect club and system, while Torres has never looked at home at Chelsea since joining them two years ago; Michu is riding the crest of a wave, Torres is in an entrenched slump; one cost 25 times less than the other.

A highly unscientific straw poll of ED's Chelsea-supporting mates suggests Torres is somewhat fortunate that there is currently a more unpopular Spaniard at the club, Benitez, who is taking some of the heat off him. But there are parallels: both have been placed into a role they were never suited for by  Abramovich, but must limp along in an uneasy pact, blindly hoping that things will improve.

Benitez, against all visual evidence to the contrary, and to the bemusement of most Chelsea fans, still refused to concede that Torres was ineffectual against Swansea. When asked if Chelsea had looked more dangerous in the final 10 minutes with Ba on the pitch, he stretched credulity when replying: "No, I don't think so."

Swansea, remarkably, now look to be destined for the final, where of course they could meet Bradford, 3-1 winners over Aston Villa in their first leg on Tuesday. It would not be anyone's dream final, but, whisper it quietly, it would certainly have a hint of romanticism about it.

To be honest, the only saving grace on an otherwise horrid night for Chelsea was that Geoff Shreeves had the night off for Sky, meaning he was unable to inform Ivanovic in typically brutal fashion that his two mistakes probably meant he wouldn't be appearing in the final.

Ivanovic cost Chelsea the game, but once again the focus was all on Torres.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “There will always be a certain build-up to a Manchester United and Liverpool games. That’s simply because of the history between the two clubs, the two most successful in the country - it brings its own agenda in terms of profile and pre-match discussion. Last year it was unfortunate with the Suarez behaviour. But I think hopefully it’s behind both clubs now and we can just look forward to the game.” - Sir Alex Ferguson sounds a note of calm as the build-up to Sunday's game at Old Trafford begins.

FOREIGN VIEW: Don't make Cristiano Ronaldo angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry. After being snubbed for the FIFA Ballon d'Or award on Monday, the Real Madrid forward punished Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey last night with a hat-trick in a 4-0 win as Jose Mourinho's side cruised into the quarter-finals having lost the first leg 2-1.

COMING UP: The Eurobot takes you through the day's transfer manoeuvres with his cantankerous live blog. Meanwhile, Jan Molby discusses Chelsea 0-2 Swansea and we get an update from the Bundesliga with Pitchsie Europe.