Ever since making his first-team debut at just 16, Fernando Torres enjoyed 'prodigal son' status at boyhood club Atletico Madrid, where he wasted little time becoming the first name on successive coaches' team-sheets. Boasting a keen eye for goal and bursting with commitment, he became a hero to the Colchonero fans, who viewed him as the player to finally drag them out the shadow of neighbours Real Madrid.
Yet after five trophyless years in Spanish football's top flight, the lure of a new challenge in England's Premier League proved too strong. Leaving behind the security of a club where the team was built around him, Rafael Benitez's Liverpool offered El Niño a golden opportunity to prove his quality far from the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Though many doubted his ability to successfully adapt to his new surroundings, Torres has begun his English adventure in fine style, silencing the doubters and letting his goals do the talking.
And if the words of fellow Red Jamie Carragher are anything to go by, he has already earned the respect of his team-mates: "He's a world-class striker and he's probably up there with the best of them. He's incredibly fast and strong. It's just as well that I only have to mark him in training!"
Torres' latest victims were struggling Bolton Wanderers, the Spaniard scoring the sixth league goal of his fledgling Liverpool career at the weekend to move to the top of the club's goalscoring charts and earn a rapturous ovation from the Anfield faithful. That performance capped a memorable week for the prolific front-runnner, who four days earlier had grabbed his first UEFA Champions League goals with a brace in his side's 4-1 win over 2004 winners FC Porto. "I've been waiting so long for that day," said the man of the moment. " ."
The Madrid-born player has adapted remarkably quickly to the demands of English football, the process clearly smoothed by Liverpool's sizeable Spanish contingent. "It always takes time to get used to a new style of football, but he's found it much easier than many others," says team-mate and compatriot Jose Reina. "But he needs to keep on learning. He's still got a long way to go."
It is an opinion shared by the man responsible for bringing him to Liverpool, Benitez. "Fernando has brought a lot to the team but he still needs to improve and he knows it. The most important thing is that he has a positive attitude and he never stops trying," said the former Valencia gaffer.
After being stuck in something of a rut at his childhood club, the change of scenery has clearly aided Torres' footballing progression. Such was the weight of expectation heaped on El Niño's young shoulders at Atletico, it is perhaps no surprise to see him playing with a new-found sense of freedom.
The move to English soil has also freed Torres off the field, his iconic status with the Atletico fans preventing him from leading anything resembling a normal life in Madrid. Now able to focus solely on playing football, Torres appears to have found the ideal environment to unleash his limitless power and potential.
For club and country
An early developer at club level, Torres also boasts a vast wealth of international experience for one so young. Having helped Spain to European U-16 and U-19 titles, he made the step up to the full national side at just 19. Boasting a respectable tally of 45 caps and 15 goals for the senior team, Torres can also point to appearances at UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal and the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
Introduced to senior international football by his former
mentor at youth level, Inaki Saez, Torres would cement his place as
Furia Roja regular under Saez's replacement, Luis
Aragones, who coached him at Atletico. And it was at Germany 2006
that Torres hinted at becoming a true world-class performer,
grabbing a stunning late strike in Spain's 4-0 reverse of
Ukraine and firing a brace in a 3-1 win over Tunisia.
With Spanish fans in euphoric mood, along came a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France to cut short the celebrations and end La Selección's campaign in the Round of 16. For El Niño, missing from Aragones' squad recently through injury, next summer's UEFA EURO 2008 finals could be Spain's chance to set the record straight.
In the meantime, he is set to continue honing his talents in
the English game, which he feels is well-suited to his style of
play. Out of his Atletico comfort zone, Torres believes the switch
has improved his all-round game and in particular his finishing.
Not that he is resting on his laurels: "The match that I dream of playing, my best-ever performance, is still to come," he promises.