LONDON (Reuters) - Fernando Torres left Chelsea fans wondering if they would ever see the striker who once terrorised defences after another forlorn performance as they limped into the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday.
A stunning injury-time goal from substitute Eden Hazard salvaged a 1-1 draw against Sparta Prague on the night to send Chelsea through 2-1 on aggregate after David Lafata had put the Czechs ahead in the first half at Stamford Bridge.
The tie could have been put to bed, however, before the nerves set in had Spain forward Torres managed to find the net with any of the four gilt-edged chances that fell to him.
Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez, who brought out the best in Torres when they were both at Liverpool, said the 50 million pound striker worked hard for the team, but it seemed a laboured effort to boost the striker’s spirits.
“I think we can be talking about Fernando not scoring goals because he has four chances, but I will look at the positive - he had four good chances,” Benitez told reporters.
“For the team he was doing a good job, he was in the right place at the right time and working very well.”
A bad night for the Spaniard started after just six minutes when he steered a cross from Victor Moses wide from 12 metres.
It got worse when Torres somehow scooped a Juan Mata pass over the bar when it seemed easier to score five minutes later.
At this point his shoulders dropped and he looked shorn of the last few drops of confidence, a quality that oozed from him when he was at his devastating best for Liverpool.
He ended the first half with a close-range header that flew over the bar and began the second with a failed effort to flick the ball over the keeper when through on goal.
Torres has now scored just one goal in his last 13 games in a run stretching back to December.
His terrible form in front of goal has coincided with the arrival of Demba Ba from Newcastle United, a player who was meant to take the weight off Torres’s shoulders but seems merely to have added to his woes.
“He had the chances and I’m sure next time he will score one or two goals,” added Benitez. “I don’t agree he was playing bad, but I agree if he could take the chances it would be better.”
Torres’s blushes were spared to some extent by Hazard’s superb late equaliser.
When Benitez signalled that the Belgium winger would replace playmaker Oscar, Chelsea fans responded with a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.
While Chelsea’s interim coach would have taken little pleasure from his team’s unspectacular progress, he might have enjoyed a wry smile as Hazard let fly with a powerful left-foot drive to send his side through to face Steaua Bucharest in the next round.
“Today I was thinking maybe I could give him (Hazard) a rest and then maybe he would be ready for then (Sunday’s Premier League match at Manchester City) as well,” Benitez said. “We had to use him but you could see he was fresh and he was confident.”
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Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Ken Ferris