As Nemanja Vidic found out in Manchester United’s 4-1 defeat to Liverpool last March, Fernando Torres has the ability to reduce even the best defender to a gibbering wreck. The Liverpool striker gave the previously impenetrable United defence a hounding from which they have not yet truly recovered. Arsenal, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid have suffered similarly at the feet of Torres.
So West Ham should not be too down-hearted after becoming the latest team to fall victim of Torres’s brilliance. He scored twice in Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Upton Park on Saturday, and ultimately was the difference between the two sides. That is usually the case with world-class attackers though, and even the best-laid plans implemented to deal with them can be made to look foolishly futile.
Torres has haunted West Ham before. In March 2008, he scored an effortless hat-trick in a 4-0 home win for Liverpool, while he had a hand in Steven Gerrard’s two goals at Upton Park in May this year. He will probably be back to haunt them again, but teams of West Ham’s stature should not judge their progress by how well they cope with a Fernando Torres. At best, it is a pointlessly self-flagellating exercise.
James Tomkins was made to look particularly hopeless by Torres when he scored his first. The young defender was isolated against the Spaniard on the left side of the area. A feint inside followed by enough stepovers to make those of Cristiano Ronaldo look positively prudent and Torres was away. Although Matthew Upson came across to cover and Robert Green appeared to have closed the angle, Torres’s poked blast with his right foot into the near corner took everyone by surprise. It was a quite majestic piece of forward play.
What had preceded the move, however, was not quite so brilliant. West Ham had cheaply given the ball away in midfield when trying to counter-attack after a Liverpool corner, before it was funnelled forward to Torres, making the goal essentially avoidable. Sloppiness has been the story of West Ham’s two home games so far this season. Tottenham punished errors by Carlton Cole and Jonathan Spector when they emerged with a somewhat fortunate 2-1 victory.
That is the danger against the elite. They afford little time or space, thereby forcing mistakes, and they are potent enough to capitalise on them. It is unlikely, for instance, that when Fulham come to Upton Park in two weeks, the likes of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson will be as clinical as Torres or Jermain Defoe. A misplaced place then will not receive so much scrutiny.
Liverpool’s winner on Saturday was a triumph for their pressing game, Glen Johnson picking the pocket of a tired Zavon Hines thirty yards from West Ham’s goal, before Ryan Babel crossed the ball for Torres to beat Tomkins in the air and head past Green. Babel had been introduced in place of the more prosaic Dirk Kuyt by Rafael Benitez to run at a tiring West Ham defence and the substitution paid dividends. The physical and mental strain of holding off a top team can take its toll, and West Ham eventually hit the wall that long-distance runners often refer to.
Had Upson and Valon Behrami not been forced off by injury in the first half, West Ham would have been fresher as the game progressed, but the two substitutions left Gianfranco Zola with no way of sprucing up his team. By contrast, Liverpool were able to call upon a £10.5m Dutch international to tip the scales in their favour.
Although the defeat leaves West Ham perched on four points from five games, their position is not perilous. Indeed there is much to be positive about, and once Zola is able to call upon a settled team, results will improve. Jack Collison and Luis Jimenez are sorely missed, while at left-back, Herita Ilunga looked a little rusty after a spell out with a broken jaw. At the moment, West Ham are being forced to change their line-up from one week to the next and a transitional period is inevitable.
Zola’s adherence to West Ham’s youth system is also pleasing. On only his second start for the club, Hines impressed once more, his pace constantly troubling Liverpool and inducing Jamie Carragher to give away the penalty from which Alessandro Diamanti scored his first West Ham goal. While many raved about the emergence of Freddie Sears in 2008, few had even heard of Hines, but his potential was evident in his cameo role against Millwall in the Carling Cup, where he outstripped the away defence before finishing confidently.
Although Torres has complained about rough treatment at the hands of opposition defenders this season, no Premier League player was fouled more than Hines this weekend and the way he kept on coming back for more, not to mention his refusal to let his head drop after hitting the post in the second minute, suggests the West Ham academy has produced yet another one. With the brash billionaires of Manchester City up next, it remains gratifying to see West Ham demonstrate that it is possible to get something for nothing, even if Torres did remind us of the value of a £26.5m striker.
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