After bagging 33 goals in his debut season in English football, many thought a Liverpool side without Fernando Torres would find life tough.
But impressive wins over Manchester United and Chelsea—without Torres—have established Liverpool as genuine title contenders.
The striker has missed six matches with a hamstring strain suffered during the last international break.
And in recent weeks Rafael Benitez and his players have spoken of their belief their title push can continue despite the absence of the celebrated Spaniard.
Earlier this week Benitez said: “He is a fantastic player, he can change games, but we have been playing so well we have not missed him.”
Team-mate Pepe Reina added: “We have plenty of strikers to choose from and there is enough strength in the squad to cope while Fernando is out.”
Such an appraisal was hard to ignore as Liverpool climbed to the top of the table in imperious fashion.
However, Liverpool’s inability to turn their dominance into three points at White Hart Lane last weekend and mid-week against Atletico Madrid has brought Torres’ absence back into sharp focus.
Torres’ last goal for the Reds came in the 3-2 defeat of Manchester City, a game that Liverpool wrestled back from the brink of defeat thanks to a series of slick and incisive moves spearheaded by the pace and interplay of the Spaniard.
Torres’ ability to find the net has never been in question but his ability to fit into a system may be his biggest—perhaps only—weakness.
Torres’ absence has forced Benitez to deploy Robbie Keane and, perhaps more importantly, top-scorer Dirk Kuyt in their favoured striking roles. This in turn has led to Steven Gerrard being thrust into a more attacking position.
The positioning of Gerrard, often a point of debate in its own right, may be a significant factor in Liverpool’s recent form—but not for obvious reasons. The midfield partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, often broken up by Gerrard, has provided a real balance to Liverpool’s play.
Mascherano’s combative ball-winning style, married to Alonso’s classy and precise distribution, mirrors the midfield set-up of Benitez’s lauded double league-winning Valencia team.
This balance was particularly evident at Stamford Bridge, where Alonso and Mascherano combined perfectly to foil the likes of Frank Lampard and Deco while providing a tidy link to the front men.
Despite the success of this system, its main limitation is the lack of the attacking nous so often required to unlock the tightly packed defences of teams visiting Anfield. In this, Torres may have his argument for selection—if he needs one.
The irony for Torres and Liverpool looms in the form of another international break. Spain face Chile in Villarreal on November 19, and the prospect of losing Torres for the third time in 18 months after an international break must weigh heavily on the mind of Benitez.
Talks with the Spanish FA over Torres’ treatment while he is with the national squad have taken place and a set of special exercises have been drawn up for him to complete each day to help the hamstring heal properly.
Just whether Liverpool will allow another friendly call-up for Torres so soon after injury remains to be seen, but expect Benitez to signal his opinion before the plane for Villarreal leaves.
Torres is almost certain to return for the league clash with West Brom at Anfield this weekend, but if the last few weeks have taught Benitez anything, it may just be that his star striker might not be as indispensable as he previously thought.