Spain's coach not giving up on Torres
Spain was struggling to find a way through against Portugal. And then Vicente del Bosque took Fernando Torres off.
Two minutes later the man who replaced him, Fernando Llorente, dived in to head just wide. Two minutes after that, Llorente held the ball up to bring Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta into the move and between them they carved out a chance for David Villa to score and send Spain into the semifinals.
In five minutes, Spain's fortunes had changed entirely. In the 32 minutes he was on the pitch, Llorente offered more than Torres did in an hour.
He received the ball once more than Torres did and although they had the same number of shots, Llorente had fourteen good plays to Torres's nine while Torres had had nine bad ones to Llorente's five. Six times Llorente out jumped his defenders to reach the ball; Torres did not manage that once. Llorente won the ball back twice; again, Torres didn't manage to do so on a single occasion.
It is not supposed to be this way. Spain had been struggling and all it had taken to remedy its ills was the removal of the man who is supposed to be one of the best strikers in the world, an idol for Liverpool and Atlético Madrid fans, a hero in Spain - the man who finished third at the FIFA world player awards in 2008.
Never mind the podium in Zurich, some now reckon he should not even be on the pitch in Johannesburg. Some are calling for Torres to be dropped for Saturday's World Cup quarter-final against Paraguay (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET). Writing in the sports daily AS, Nika Cuenca - who, in mitigation, it should be revealed is the paper's Athletic Bilbao correspondent, the team Llorente plays for - insists simply: "Llorente is better than Torres."
Except, he's not. Or at least he's not supposed to be. Not normally.
But right now, something is wrong with Torres. He looks sluggish and his touch has deserted him. Above all, say the critics, so too has his finishing: two great chances against Honduras flew miles off target. Against Portugal he didn't even have any. He didn't seem to be able to work his way into dangerous positions.
Although he scored within 10 minutes of his return from injury in a friendly against Poland in Murcia just before the team flew off to South Africa, Torres has not scored in a competitive match for over a year. Privately some teammates insist he needs a goal to settle his nerves; they say he looks on edge.
There are reasons for his dip in form. To an extent it is understandable. Torres comes into the World Cup on the back of an injury this season and having had to return from two operations. As he himself puts it, he is still undergoing a kind of pre-season, getting himself fit - however absurd it might sound to consider World Cup matches as preparatory sessions.
But in a way Torres's contribution to the Spain squad is not really about goals anyway. At least, not only.
He recently insisted: "David Villa is our goal scorer and always has been. It is not my responsibility to score, it is his."
The phrase could have been dismissed as an attempt to relieve the pressure on his shoulders, as indeed could Vicente del Bosque's claims that Torres offers something extra to the team beyond goals - pace, power, the ability to mix the game up like no one else can, a capacity for "tying up the centre-backs", giving Spain a variety to its play that other, more slight footballers can't, and allowing David Villa freedom and space to play.
And it could be dismissed too because Torres's goal-scoring record with Liverpool is so impressive - to suggest that he is not in the team to get goals seems somehow almost perverse.
But the thing is, he has a point.
Torres has a very respectable 24 international goals. But they have come in 77 games. Compare that to Villa's 41 in 62. Compare that, in fact, to his own 56 goals in 79 games for Liverpool. Note too that 15 of those international al goals came before Euro 2008, before Spain really cemented and reinforced its ball-playing style and it starts to become clear that Torres and Villa have different roles - and that Liverpool and Spain impose different roles on the madrileño.
Whereas Liverpool's direct style, releasing Torres into space behind defences, suits him when it comes to getting goals, Spain's doesn't. Its careful build up and intricate passing often denies him the space he thrives in. Honest and intelligent, Torres makes no bones about the fact that English football - and Liverpool's particular brand of English football - suits his game, providing him with chances that he doesn't get with Spain.
While Torres's all-round game is cause for concern for Del Bosque - after all even in the 'Emile Heskey role', the foil to another man's finesse, Llorente played better against Paraguay - he is genuinely not worried about the goals. Others might judge him on solely his strike rate but those that play alongside him and work with him - Villa especially - do not.
Besides, Torres does get goals. Goals that no one else could get. Vital goals. And no one would bet against him getting another one here. Which is just one reason why, despite some question marks over him, he will start against Paraguay.
Washed away in the euphoria of the moment, lit up by the glow of a success that has imposed an erroneous belief that everyone and everything was perfect all tournament long, it seems to be forgotten that because of his relative lack of goals Torres was one of only two players (the other was Sergio Ramos) whose performances provoked concern at Euro 2008.
And everyone knows how that ended.
Fernando Torres certainly does.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.