By Liam Twomey
When Didier Drogba was forced out of Stamford Bridge in a blaze of glory in the summer, the consensus among the Chelsea hierarchy was that, freed from the Ivorian’s overbearing shadow, Fernando Torres would finally be able to begin the journey back to his sensational best.
In reality, all that was removed was the last excuse for mediocrity. Blues fans had been patient with their £50 million man while Drogba was still cementing his legend, and while it was perceived that the team was not set up to satisfy his needs, but now there could be no more allowances.
Admittedly Torres has impressed in flashes since, but he has not come close to reaching the talismanic heights scaled by Robin van Persie at Manchester United, or Sergio Aguero at Manchester City last term. At his best he has been passable, scoring 11 goals in all competitions. At his worst he has been as anonymous and exasperating as ever.
Chelsea supporters were losing faith well before the January arrival of Demba Ba from Newcastle reminded them what a true Premier League goalscorer looks like. But now, with the Senegalese striker continuing to do what he does best, it has taken only four matches for the stark contrast to convince the thousands watching that persisting with Torres at all is folly.
The Spaniard took 25 matches to reach three goals in a Blue shirt. Ba has taken just four, having already outscored his rival over the first half of the season in a struggling Newcastle side. But his superiority remains obvious when you consider other, less obvious statistics.
According to whoscored.com, Ba’s Premier League pass success rate on Tyneside was 78.3%, compared to just 69.6% for Torres. He won 2.9 aerial duels per game, significantly better than Torres’ figure of 2.3. Finally – and perhaps most crucially – he averaged 4.5 shots per game, over double the number that Torres (2.2) has conjured.
Of course, these numbers do not take into account the position and range from which these shots were taken. But the fact that even the likes of Santi Cazorla (3), Steven Gerrard (2.5) and Leon Osman (2.3) try their luck more often suggests Torres is simply not shooting enough.
The argument put forward by Rafa Benitez and, previously, by Roberto Di Matteo, is that Torres creates space for others by working the channels and dragging opposition defenders out of position. But even in his brief Chelsea career to date, Ba has managed to link up thrillingly with Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Victor Moses while still posing a more constant goal threat himself.
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When Torres works the channels, you get the sense it is because he no longer relishes the responsibility of being near the opposition goal. When he does venture into the penalty area, his actions are invariably laboured, indecisive and fruitless. In contrast, Ba is full of purpose, and his clever movement means he finds space without needing bursts of rapid acceleration.
Former Blues assistant manager Ray Wilkins is in no doubt as to which man is the better option until a bid for a new superstar striker is made in the summer. “I would love to say Torres has still got a future at the club because he once was a dynamic centre forward, unfortunately that hasn't been the case at Chelsea so I'm a little bit disappointed for him,” he told Goal.com.
“Sturridge went for £12 million and Ba has come in, and he’s a bit of a goal machine. He’s a fantastic stop-gap but I think they'll probably use Torres as a bit of a makeweight when they end up going for Falcao or Cavani. Those two are very, very expensive, but they are probably the ones that can take Chelsea to the next step again.”
Ba is clearly a class above in every area, but Chelsea is no meritocracy. Torres still retains Roman Abramovich’s faith and favour and, as long as that remains the case, Benitez feels compelled to pick him for the biggest games, regardless of performance.
That said, if Benitez wants his short stay at Stamford Bridge to have a happy ending, he must walk his own path. Chelsea’s recent slump has seen the Manchester giants disappear over the horizon in the title race. If Sunday’s clash with Arsenal goes awry, a top-four finish will seem less certain too.
Torres scored an impressive opener as the Blues triumphed 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium back in September, but his recent slump leaves him no real claim to a start. Ba is the man in form, and tormented Arsene Wenger’s men even as Newcastle lost 7-3 in north London last month.
Benitez’s team selection on Sunday, then, will be telling. There remain many neutrals who believe the Spaniard has not deserved the vitriol directed his way by a Stamford Bridge crowd hostile towards him from the start, but the sympathy will run out if he makes the wrong choice.
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