Originally posted on Fox Soccer  |  Last updated 4/4/13
In 1994 Chuck Russell's film "The Mask," Jim Carrey's character finds that his personality is changed by putting on a wooden mask. Inhibitions disappear and the meek Stanley Ipkiss becomes an extrovert, zoot-suited, green-faced conman. It wouldn't quite by true to say Fernando Torres has undergone a similar transformation since donning a plastic faceguard to protect the nose he broke against Steaua Bucharest in the last Europa League round. Yet, against Rubin Kazan on Thursday night, at least some of the inhibitions melted away as he scored twice and had a hand in the other as Chelsea defeated the Russian side at Stamford Bridge 3-1 . For the analogy really to work, the change in temperament would have had to be immediate. Torres began in familiarly bumbling style, falling over the ball and then dragging a shot wide in the opening quarter of an hour. What transformed Torres is not the mask but goals and one came his way after 16 minutes. "I said before that Fernando Torres was training very well, very hard," said Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez. "I was pleased not just with the goals but with his contribution to the team and his work rate. We always talk about strikers, how they have to score goals and the confidence will be there. "I have no doubt about work rate but his touch on the ball and his passing the ball was much better because of the confidence." In many ways, the goal was typical of Torres this season: full of good intentions with a slightly bungled execution. He made a good run to get behind Roman Sharonov and latch on to a finely weighted long pass from David Luiz. His take was not, it's fair to say, the cleanest take, as he almost sat on the ball. In effect, the ball spun kindly and he was able to nudge it past goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov with a wag of his right leg. Given Rafa Benitez's abilities as a micromanager, it's tempting to believe he planned the goal to come at just that point to head off the usual 16th minute protest in support of Roberto Di Matteo, who wore the number 16 shirt when he played at the club and remains hugely popular after being sacked as manager in November. It was Torres's 18th goal of the season - a remarkable tally for a player widely derided for being out of sorts - but just his third of the year. The strike had a remarkable effect on him and two minutes later he was crossing the ball by kicking behind his standing leg. Torres was involved in the second goal as well, albeit less directly. Ryzhikov made a fine save as Victor Moses met Cesar Azpilicueta's cross with a bouncing header, Torres collected, and created an angle for the shot only for the ball to be half blocked and loop into the air. The highly-rated Bebras Natcho, whose willingness to battle physically has come into question, ineffectually stabbed his clearance to Moses, who rattled a ferocious shot into the top corner. A sense fell over the ground that the game was as good as won. However, five minutes from half time, Cristian Ansaldi, the Argentinian left back, cut inside onto his right foot and struck a shot that hit John Terry's upper arm. The arm was only a fraction away from the body, but Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi gave the penalty, which Natcho converted. Another Ansaldi long-ranger scudded just wide and almost unthinkably given how the bulk of the game had gone, Chelsea was wobbling when half time came. Fortunately for Blues supporters, Chelsea restored its equilibrium in the second half. Torres reestablished the two-goal margin that should leave Chelsea safe for the semifinal stage even after having conceded the away goal. Yossi Benayoun, having had a quiet night, was the architect, flicking the ball over his own head and that of his marker before laying the ball wide for Torres. The "Nervous Torres" would have dithered or panicked, but this new "Masked Torres" made for goal; essentially holding possession and rolling the ball back to Frank Lampard, then continuing his run so that when the ball was laid outside to Mata and crossed, he was ideally placed to head powerfully home. Unbelievably given the mockery he has endured this season, that goal made him the club's joint top-scorer this season. So consistently excellent has Mata been for Chelsea - this was his 51st assist for the club in just his 106th appearance to go with 30 goals - that the accuracy of the cross almost passed unnoticed. That he has been Chelsea's best player of the season can hardly be disputed, but the night was about Torres. There have been many false dawns before, of course, far too many for this to be hailed definitively as a return to form. Yet Torres, at least, offered a reminder of what he was once capable of doing on a consistent basis. Part of the problem is that, with Demba Ba in fine form and ineligible for the Europa League, he rarely gets bar in of games - and will almost certainly be benched on Sunday for the Premier League game against Sunderland in preparation for next Thursday's return leg in Moscow. "Torres needed to score a goal because in every press conference it's the same questions," added Benitez. "We could see today the confidence." The issue now is maintaining it.
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