Reborn Torres returns to Milan to complete Atletico's greatest tale
The last time Fernando Torres crossed the touchline at San Siro, he was being hauled off in the Milan derby. On Saturday, he returns for the Champions League final, and the chance to realise a boyhood dream against the old enemy. Comeback tales do not get much grander.
Written off by most when he left Chelsea - and by everyone else when AC Milan could find no use for him in a miserable six-month spell - Torres' swansong is now in full voice. He has scored 10 in his last 13 starts and boasts his best goalscoring run in league football for six years.
A goal against Barcelona and an assist versus Bayern Munich in the previous two rounds have earned his side a shot at vengeance over Real Madrid, even if they did come at the cost of a red card and a missed penalty.
His return to Atletico Madrid in January last year looked for all the world like a nostalgia trip - a chance for the Vicente Calderon to bid farewell to 'El Nino', club captain at the age of 19. Few predicted that 18 months on he would be set to start club football's biggest match and writing his side's greatest ever story.
Torres has won Europe's biggest prize before, but it's easy to forget. A yellow card at the end of a 36-minute spell as a substitute summed up his contribution in the final of four years ago. He didn't take a penalty in the shoot-out, and as Chelsea team-mates celebrated in front of incredulous fans in Munich, he walked off on his own before telling reporters of his frustration.
"I was not in a good place. I did not feel I was being treated well at the time - I felt lost," he reflected when asked about his memories this week.
"My career is going so well at the moment, and I feel so at home and full of confidence that I do not want to relive those days."
3 - Spanish players with most goals in the second leg of La Liga 15/16:
Rubén Castro 10
FERNANDO TORRES 9
Aritz Aduriz 9
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 14, 2016
Chelsea's crowning achievement felt like the beginning of the end for Torres. A man described by Jamie Carragher as the most gifted forward to play at Anfield in a decade astonishingly went on to score fewer league goals in four years at Stamford Bridge than he managed in his first season alone with Liverpool. The body was slowing down, Carragher reckoned - and the mind was wandering.
"We knew when Torres left Liverpool in January 2011 that Chelsea were not getting a £50 million striker," he wrote in a revealing Daily Mail column in 2013. "Injuries had started to take a toll on him and he had lost a yard of pace.
"His attitude dropped alarmingly. You could tell from his body language in a pre-match warm-up what type of performance you were going to get. If Fernando was going through the motions, a few of us would look at each other and say: 'Here we go again'."
Described as "an outsider" by Carragher, Torres has always been introspective. 'The Kid', as he is nicknamed, has his name tattooed on his arm in a language from The Lord of the Rings. He married long-term girlfriend Olalla Dominguez Liste in 2009 at a ceremony in El Escoril, the district where they both grew up, in front of just two guests.
In a bid to halt his alarming decline, he turned - unsurprisingly - inwards. And he hated what he saw.
Our fans around the world have chosen Fernando Torres as #ATM5StarsPlayer of Mahou Football of April. It's always a pleasure talking to him about football: Celta, the Champions final… Atléticos, are you ready to cheer our players on this end of season?
Posted by Atlético de Madrid on Saturday, 14 May 2016
"I had team-mates who didn't care if the team won or lost because they were not playing," he said just weeks after Chelsea's Champions League win. "I never wanted to be like that. [But] one day I discovered that I was, that it didn't matter if we won or lost if I was not playing.”
Torres, desperate to shed this apathetic Doppelganger, jumped at the chance to return to Atleti, but an awful barren run in front of goal between September and February left even the most romantic fans scratching their heads at what England had done to their hero.
But this time, Diego Simeone's infectious positivity kept his head from dropping. On February 6, Torres scored his 100th goal for the club against Eibar, and never looked back. Instead, crucially, he looked around at his team-mates.
"When I spoke to him I said I didn't want him to return as a club idol," said Simeone. "We needed him to be a team player." Torres now trumpets the same call: "We're nothing if we're not a team. We die for each other. For us, every game is a war."
Saturday will be one battle he won't fight alone. And the man with the Tolkien tattoo might just get his fantasy ending.