When he went off with a suspected hamstring injury after 23 minutes of Spain’s friendly with France, Fernando Torres said it was only as a precaution and that he thought he’d be fit for Sunday. His national team’s doctor thought much the same. But a scan has confirmed the fears of Rafa Benitez and Reds fans – the top scorer is likely to miss at least three games, starting with Chelsea on Sunday.
The Reds’ head press officer Ian Cotton made the statement that turned fears into facts: “Fernando was examined by medical staff when he returned to Melwood. A scan later confirmed their diagnosis that he suffered a hamstring tear in his right leg. Fernando is expected to be out for approximately ten days.”
That ten day period covers Sunday’s visit to Stamford Bridge and the FA Cup clash at Anfield against Barnsley a week tomorrow. It also puts in question whether or not the player will be available for the visit of Inter Milan on 19th February in the Champions League. Torres is such an important player that Rafa took a chance on his fitness against Arsenal at the end of October and the player struggled for the whole of the first half before having to be withdrawn at half-time. He missed the next two weeks as a result. Rafa will need to weigh up the pros and cons of rushing him back for an important fixture against having him at risk of missing yet more games.
In that Arsenal game Torres was attempting to return from an injury that had also been sustained when on international duty, and so it was no surprise to hear Rafa unhappy once again at his plans being messed up yet again. He’s already got a growing number of players unavailable due to injury and one out due to suspension, and Javier Mascherano won’t arrive back from his Argentina duty until later today.
Speaking before the Torres scan had confirmed what he already knew, Rafa said: “We have lost Torres and Mascherano is not back until Friday. I think Mascherano will be okay for Sunday but we will have to see. The news we have on Torres is that it is a hamstring injury. I need to talk to the doctor but I think he will miss this game. Normally it is a week when a player goes off like this. It is a big problem for us.”
Rafa’s limited transfer budget means he’s not had the money to buy more than one striker of the quality of Torres, who he only managed to buy thanks to increased TV money, a good run in a Champions League and the much higher than normal income from players sales. Putting all his eggs into one basket was a risk, and overall it should still pay off, but your world class striker is not going to win you any games if he’s sitting in the stands watching the action.
These next three games are pretty big. Against Chelsea there’s the pride involved in trying to do well against a rival, even if their squad investment is streets ahead of your own. And of course the three points are desperately needed to get that top-four place back again. The FA Cup is a competition Rafa takes seriously, winning it in 2006, and he knows that silverware is what fans want most. The Champions League is the competition he knew he had to stay in if he wanted to keep his job. He was forced to sacrifice the league game against Reading to ensure he had his main players available for the following Champions League game after learning he’d be sacked if they went out. Irrespective of that – Rafa knows how much the 2005 glories meant to the supporters.
Rafa was fighting hard to avoid getting angry, but was finding it tough: “We have three big games in 10 days in three different competitions, and we have lost our top goalscorer. It is difficult to be calm about it; this was another international friendly in a busy period for clubs at this time of the season.”
Even when players come back without injury it’s disruptive, but what’s happened to Torres is the icing on the cake: “It is crazy enough they go away and have different training systems, diets, new ideas. And then they get injured.”
It was always going to be a tough match against Chelsea, made tougher by the poor form shown by the Reds since Christmas, but a win last weekend looked set to at least give Rafa something to build on – until the majority of his squad disappeared for the week: “We have got some confidence back with a 3-0 win over Sunderland and a very good second-half performance. But then a lot of players are away all over the world and we are left to train with just a few, it makes things very difficult.
Rafa isn’t the only manager to have suffered from players returning damaged from international duties, and the games’ governing bodies are looking into the introduction of compensation packages, but even in these belt-tightening times under the current owners it’s not all about money: “It is hard to see who is to blame for Torres’ injury. The authorities are talking of changing the schedule and to pay money if you lose players, but it is not about money. We are playing at Chelsea fighting for fourth position, then we have Barnsley in the FA Cup and after that Inter Milan in the Champions League. That is three important competitions, and if you lose someone like Torres, who was scoring lots of goals, it is a big, big loss.”
We know only too well that Rafa hates hearing words instead of seeing action, and he feels the same in this situation too: “You can always blame someone, but any solution would be better than this. Every time we have an international break we are talking of a solution and a way to improve things, but still nothing happens.”
International coaches are under pressure, when they get their chances to use the players they unsurprisingly don’t put much thought into how their methods might mess up the plans of the club managers: “The players go off with different coaches,” said Rafa, “some have to train hard and some have to learn a different system. The training can be too intense and people get injured.”
Rafa’s unlikely to get his wish though: “It would be better to play all the internationals at the same time, maybe at the end of the season rather than keep sending the players all around the world.”
Forget that Rafa. The major international associations want their money-spinning friendlies and their opportunities to plug this month’s new kits; the best a club manager will get is a bit of compensation to pay the players’ sick pay.
And the greed being shown by Premier League bosses with their shocking proposals to devalue the league by playing an extra game overseas half-way through the season, taking away the age-old principle of playing each other team in the league once, home and away, means that the international associations will have no sympathy for the clubs. The clubs – or the ones in the hands of the greedier owners – are actively seeking to disrupt their own teams’ seasons by flying thousands of miles to a different time-zone to play a game in completely different weather conditions slap bang in the middle of the season. The idea is wrong on so many levels, but the dollar signs are blocking the sight of the owners of far too many clubs these days.
Few people resent the idea of overseas fans of clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United getting a chance to see their heroes in the flesh, and of course the extra money will help clubs like Liverpool pay back the debts their owners got them into, but it’s a disruptive plan that will make the league uneven. Every season there’s a club like Derby, struggling at the bottom well behind everyone else. How happy would Alex Ferguson be to see Chelsea drawn to play in a similar climate in New York against Derby whilst his side has to play Aston Villa in the blistering heat of Sydney? Especially if the final table sees Chelsea win by two points.
Torres will be missed by the Reds on Sunday, but it looks like football itself will be missed even more in the coming years.