Fernando Torres' Debut in Fringe Selection Underlines How Far Atletico Have Come

Guillem Balague@@GuillemBalagueFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2015

Atletico's Fernando Torres reacts during a King's Cup soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015 . (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

For Diego Simeone, the return of Fernando Torres to Atletico Madrid's starting line-up for the first leg of the Copa del Rey last-16 match against Real Madrid was always going to be a win-win situation.

First and foremost, the fans got what they wanted with the emotional return of the "prodigal son" even though it very quickly became obvious Torres needs at least a month before he is at the fitness levels of the rest of Simeone's squad (as predicted by members of the staff after three training sessions).

The match also gave the coach a chance to experiment with some of the fringe players who do not normally get a chance to turn out for the first XI.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

This, if nothing else, is an indication of how far Atletico have come since Simeone took over. Can you imagine a pre-Simeone Atletico Madrid experimenting with team selection before a last-16 cup tie against the old enemy?

Giving a chance to many players from the second string sent out the message that defeat would not have been a disaster. These days, he seems to be telling the fans we have bigger fish to fry than a last-16 Copa del Rey match.

Whoever comes out on top after the completion of this tie will face either Barcelona or Elcheprobably Barcelonawhich all translates into a lot of effort for the least wanted target of the season.

Simeone is under no illusions about the job in hand, and the Copa del Rey is the least of his priorities behind retaining the league and going one step better than last season in the Champions League.

And while the fans will have loved to see the return of Torres, the reality is what they saw was a player a long way from the one who left the club. It suited Simeone to give the fans a reality check.

What they saw was a guy out of shape playing at a different tempo to the rest of his team-mates. A player short of confidence, unable to read the line well enough to stop himself from straying offside on a number of occasions and a player looking to gain advantage not with his pace but by placing himself the wrong side of the defence.

The fans' pleasure at his return was only matched by Torres' eagerness to impress, and on a couple of occasions he tried things he was never going to be able to do.

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 07:  Fernando Torres of Club Atletico de Madrid gets past Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid
during the Copa del Rey Round of 16, First Leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid at Vicente Calderon Stadium on January 7, 20
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

After that month of hard work, Simeone wants him to target eight to 10 goals for this season. I imagine a more realistic expectation would be four or five, and key appearances in the Champions League where Simeone wants his experience to count.

One thing is for certain. I don't see him as an automatic starter because at this stage his lack of pace makes counter-attacking football a complete non-starter, so Mandzukic is clearly going to be the No. 1 choice.

Whatever Simeone may feel about the competition, the reality is it now seems likely Atletico will make it into the next round while Real Madridif you include their friendly defeat against AC Milanare looking at their third defeat on the bounce.

While the friendly may have no real meaning, it did demonstrate a loss of the winning dynamic, and Carlo Ancelotti will be the first to realise they need to get it back sooner rather than later.

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: head coach Diego Pablo Simeone (L) of Atletico de Madrid embraces head coach Carlo Ancelotti (R) of Real Madrid CF during the Copa del Rey Round of 16  first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Vicen
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real have been struggling with teams who defend deeply, and more worryingly, Cristiano Ronaldo has been out of form for about three weeks now, and the rumours coming out of the Bernabeu are that he is beginning to suffer problems with his left knee again.

Gareth Bale is also short of his best form, as is Karim Benzema. Toni Kroos is always involved but somewhat prone to error, Isco also lacks the sharpness of a month ago and James Rodriguez was also missing.

Combine out-of-form players with a statistic that revealed Real Madrid chose the game against Valencia to run less than they had for any other game so far this season and a loss was on the cards.

It is not a crisis, of course, but it shows how difficult it is to create and maintain a winning dynamic.

That might well suggest rotation is therefore the order of the day. The real question is does Ancelotti believe he has players sufficiently capable to permit him to do that? We shall see.