Fans of Spain and followers of the beautiful game everywhere could be found biting their nails when Fernando Torres went under the knife just one month before his national side’s pre-South Africa 2010 training camp. However, El Niño and his medical team have worked wonders to ensure the Liverpool returned from the operation on his knee to full fitness in time.

“I couldn’t make up my mind for a whole week,” said Torres, who has appeared in all three of La Selección’s games so far on his second trip to the finals. "I would have preferred not to have the operation, but in the end I had no option. It was sad to miss the end of the season with my club, but what kept up my hopes was the chance to come to the World Cup."

FIFA spoke exclusively to the 26-year-old, scorer of Spain’s winner in the final of UEFA EURO 2008 against Germany, ahead of the Round of 16 encounter with Portugal on 29 June in Cape Town.

FIFA: Fernando, would you say that you are beginning to improve game by game?
Fernando Torres: Playing again after an operation is always hard, especially as it was only two months ago. It’s hard to get your fitness back. But I’m feeling better bit by bit and everything’s coming more naturally. We worked hard to make sure I made it here, but now I’m just focusing on helping the team as much as I can.

Though you’re yet to open your account at the finals, David Villa is in red-hot form. What can you tell us about him?
David’s one of those players who only thinks about scoring. He can shoot and score with either foot and from inside or outside the box. He’s always a threat to opposing teams but they can’t tell which is his stronger foot or how to close him down. That’s why he’s so important to us. Plus he only needs four more goals to overtake Raul as Spain’s highest-ever goalscorer.

We managed to top our group and now it’s up to us to play the football we enjoy playing. We’re certain that the team’s going to get stronger.

Fernando Torres

You know a good few of the Portugal players very well. What’s your verdict on Portuguese football and how fierce is the rivalry between Spain and Portugal?
I think that Portugal have a very balanced team with a good blend of young and experienced players. They won’t be easy opponents. They had trouble qualifying but they’ve improved a lot at this World Cup and had a good group phase. The rivalry comes from the fact we’re neighbours and because there are so many players who have crossed the border to play in the other country. It’ll be a very intense game.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque always asks you all to improve a little each game. What areas could you work on?
The boss wants us to rediscover our usual form. Spain still haven’t shown their best form or hit the heights we were hoping for. I think it has to do with the defeat against Switzerland. The fact we needed to win our subsequent games, along with the anxiety that brings, stopped us playing the way we would have liked. But now we’re at the stage we’d aimed to reach before we came here. We managed to top our group and now it’s up to us to play the football we enjoy playing. We’re certain that the team’s going to get stronger.

What has the coach asked of you ahead of the Portugal match?
I think that we didn’t press aggressively enough in our previous games. We didn’t play close enough to each other. We need to play more as a unit, especially against teams like Portugal who are very strong defensively and will wait for us to bring the game to them. They’ve not conceded a goal yet in South Africa, so a team like that will be very tough to break down. What’s more, they’ve got very dangerous forwards like [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Simao. That means a counter-attacking game would suit them, so that’s something we’ve got to avoid.

What’s your opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s biggest star?
His energy is incredible. He’s a player with quality to spare but he’s also willing to help out his team-mates. When his team is struggling and on the back foot, he’s always ready to receive the ball. He always wants to play and make an impact. Some of my Spain colleagues play alongside him at Real Madrid and say that he’s completely different to the public’s perception of him. He’s a great professional, is one of the first to arrive at training and then he stays afterwards to work out in the gym. Most of the time the image people have is different from the reality. I think that’s the case with all footballers. You have a different persona on and off the pitch.

Do you think Spain will finally hit their best form in time for the Portugal game?
It’ll be tough but I’m hoping Spain can produce their best football and, thanks to the support we've got, qualify for the next round. We’re in the knockout stages now and we’re in with a chance of becoming world champions, but we need to do our talking out on the pitch.