WORDS WITH: FERNANDO TORRES
With a testing set of fixtures still to overcome between now and the end of the season, there is little time for rest and recuperation, but don't expect to hear Fernando Torres complaining. We caught up with the Spanish striker as he assessed our recent run of form, while outlining his aspirations for the remainder of the campaign...
A certain Scotsman once famously referred to this stage of the season as 'squeaky bum time', while pundits, journalists and various football commentators tend to prefer the term 'business end of the season.' In truth, it's largely irrelevant how you want to dress it up, but the simple fact is that with barely a month left to play, results, and getting the job done, is all that matters.
Over the past couple of months, since Roberto Di Matteo took charge in the wake of Andre Villas-Boas's dismissal, the Blues have won nine matches out of a possible 12, turning a season which appeared to be spiralling out of control into one that could yet go down as the most memorable in our long, illustrious history.
As Torres enters the home straight in what is his first full season as a Chelsea player, it seems our resurgence of late has gone a long way to vindicating the Spaniard's decision to swap Merseyside for the bright lights of the capital 15 months ago.
Torres has seldom been out of the headlines since his arrival in west London back in January 2011, but with a Champions League semi-final against arguably the greatest club side of all-time looming, not to mention the small matter of an FA Cup final against his former club next month, the 28-year-old wouldn't have it any other way, as he tells the official Chelsea website.
'There isn't one single club in the world that can guarantee trophies, but top teams like Chelsea are always fighting for them, so now it's time to be patient, build a great team and it's good for me to be involved with such a good side, like the one we have now,' says Torres.
'There's still one month left in the season, we're in the final of the FA Cup, the semi-finals of the Champions League and this is what I want. Whether you win or not, that is down to football, but we are there and that's the main thing.'
For a player of Torres's stature, it seems remarkable that his second half appearance as a substitute during our 5-1 FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham at the weekend was the first time he'd played at Wembley for a club side, but after delving into his career highlights prior to signing for the Blues, that particular statistic is put into context.
Because, while personal accolades and international honours are something Torres has grown accustomed to acquiring throughout his career thus far, those of a collective nature at club level have proved far more difficult to come by.
As a player, Torres's work ethic is unquestionable. Often deployed as a lone striker in Di Matteo's favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, the onus is firmly on him to close down defenders and track back for the good of the team, and with the side still going strong on two fronts, securing success for everyone connected with the club is what motivates him every day in training.
'If I can win a trophy with Chelsea, it will be the first trophy I've won with a club,' he admits. 'I've obviously won the European Championships and World Cup, but they were with my country. It was our first ever World Cup, and the second European Championships, although the first one was a very long time ago, so to win a trophy as a club player is a big ambition.
'Football is a team game so that is the main thing. I work hard for the team and the good of the group is what's important, I'm so excited about the challenge of winning a trophy with my club. To achieve something for everybody at the club, the people who work here every day, not just the players, the people all around the place, and of course the fans as well, hopefully we will be able to celebrate something soon.'
The mouthwatering clash with Barcelona will inevitably have an extra edge to it for Torres, given the fact he will be playing against a team from his home country, as well as lining up against many players he counts as close friends from the Spanish national side, including Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas.
More importantly, however, for the Blues, it's a match that represents a wonderful opportunity to pit our wits against the current holders of the trophy and attempt to secure a place in the final of a tournament we have been desperately unlucky in over the years.
'I know the ambitions this club have in terms of winning the Champions League, but it's the same as what I have myself,' says Torres. 'It's something I dreamt about as a youngster growing up, I never really thought about winning the World Cup as I thought it was impossible, but now I have achieved that and I know what it feels like, so to win the Champions League would be a dream come true.
'It was the only trophy I wanted as a kid, to hold it in my arms, and if we do manage to win it, I'm sure it will be one of the greatest moments of my life.'
A Champions League triumph on 17 May in Munich would be an unbelievable end to what has been an eventful season for Torres. Having started the season playing regularly under Villas-Boas, he began to hit form after scoring in successive matches against Manchester United and Swansea.
Unfortunately, shortly after the goal against the Welsh side, Torres was sent off and subsequently suspended for three matches in which Didier Drogba led the line in his absence. By the time Torres had served his ban, the Ivorian was blossoming and Villas-Boas kept faith, meaning the Spaniard's opportunities were limited.
Under Di Matteo, though, it's been a completely different story. Torres has been playing regularly, performing well and scoring goals, and whether it be through the middle or further out wide, at such an important stage of the season, he admits he is simply happy to be contributing.
'Roberto has found a system that he knows suits the players well, we have been getting good results as well so obviously there is no need to change it,' says Torres. 'Throughout the season, a manager needs to find the system which best suits his team and which is in line with the quality of the players he has.
'With the 4-2-3-1 we are quite comfortable, playing well and scoring goals, but for me and all the players, the most important thing is to be in the starting 11. It doesn't matter where you play, especially at this time of the season, if you have to play on the left, on the right, in the middle, it doesn't matter because it's not just about the semi-finals of the Champions League or the FA Cup, we have to finish in the top four as well, that has to be the main aim because it would be a disaster if we weren't playing in the Champions League next season.
'For the way Chelsea play, there is always space on the wings. Even when I play as a centre-forward I like to drift out wide, the way we play is helped when there are spaces. If Didier is playing up front, there are usually two or three defenders marking him or the area around him, so that leaves plenty of spaces to run into and it's important for us to exploit that. We have been doing that in the last few matches, I have played there with Salomon [Kalou], Rami [Ramires] and we are creating a lot of chances from out there which is good for us.'
Interest in our game against the European champions is not just restricted to England and Spain. The Champions League in itself is a worldwide attraction, but when two teams with such a rich pedigree in the tournament go head-to-head, it takes on extra significance.
If the history books are deemed a credible indicator, the likes of Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique would do well to keep a close eye on Torres this evening if he is selected. With seven goals in 10 appearances against the Catalan club, there is no doubt he enjoys playing against them.
Back home, he will once again be under the spotlight, particularly with the European Championships on the horizon and places in the Spanish squad still up for grabs. This is a man, however, confident in his own ability and who feels he has nothing to prove.
After all, why should he? His record at the highest level speaks for itself, as Barcelona will nodoubt testify.
'I have nothing to prove, I spent a nice, long time in Spain,' he stated. 'Barcelona were the main team along with Real Madrid, and always the motivation was very high to play against them.
'I have a good record against Barcelona, they are the type of team you have to defend well against and play on the counter-attack, which is the type of game I enjoy.
'When I was at Atletico Madrid, we won at the Camp Nou two or three times, but now it's different because Chelsea are a top team as well but I certainly don't feel as if I have anything to prove against Spanish opposition.'
By Mark Conlon.