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Feb 21, 2011

Le Saux: Hefty price tag affecting Torres

Fernando Torres has been filling column inches from Chelsea to Chiang Mai over the past few weeks after swapping Anfield for Stamford Bridge to become the most expensive player in English football history. While the media glare was always going to be intense after such a high-profile transfer, the Spanish striker has found himself under particular scrutiny because of the ineffectual nature of the first two performances since his £50 million arrival.

• Heineken UCL Trophy Tour
• Preview: Copenhagen v Chelsea

But Torres is not alone in his inability to take the bull by the horns following a big-money move. A number of world-class strikers have come and gone from Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich era, and the Russian billionaire will certainly be praying his latest acquisition does not go the same way as Messrs Crespo, Mutu, Kezman and, of course, the undisputed king of expensive flops, Andriy Shevchenko.

Though Abramovich ushered in an era of money-driven success at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had already established themselves as a destination for some of football's most glittering of glitterati; Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Mark Hughes and Marcel Desailly among those who had unquestionably established themselves as world class players before moving to west London.

Though not able to boast the same level of notoriety as those most distinguished names, Graeme Le Saux was nonetheless also a marquee signing when he arrived at Chelsea in 1997 for his second spell at the club. Le Saux had left Stamford Bridge for Blackburn under a cloud of controversy in 1993 after becoming tired of life under then-manager Ian Porterfield, but four years later he arrived back at the club as England's first-choice left-back.

The Jersey-born defender had flourished during a four-year spell at Blackburn, winning the 1994-95 Premier League title and the acclaim of Three Lions boss Glenn Hoddle, who preferred Le Saux's classy attacking style at full-back to the dogged, tenacious approach of Stuart Pearce. And in 1997, Le Saux returned to the Blues for a record-breaking fee of £5 million, making him the most expensive defender in the Premier League.

Like Torres, Le Saux flattered to deceive after his record transfer and, while the expectation on the Spanish striker's shoulders is tenfold in terms of monetary value and, in reality, even greater because of his obligation to provide goals, the former left-back insisted he can empathise with the pressure of playing under a lofty price tag.

"The circumstances in which the club bought Torres has raised the level of expectation," Le Saux told ESPNsoccernet. "The price, the way he left at the last minute, the fact he wasn't in great form - all those factors have allowed people to be quite negative about him. And because of the way he's started, people have said 'he's maybe not the signing that people thought he would be'.

"I remember when I signed in 1997 - and I think this is what he will be going through over the next few weeks too - feeling a sense that you almost have to play differently from how you have done before. Suddenly there is this weight of expectation around your neck and it's self-inflicted a lot of the time as you are thinking 'they've spent all that money on me, I've got to try even harder I've got to be even better'. You immediately take away the natural instincts that you have, playing to the price tag and not your personal strengths.

"It took me probably six to eight weeks before I really made the connection that they bought me because of the way I had played, not because I had to be something else. Any player who has cost that sort of money has to get to the stage where they are playing as who they are and not just as a perception of who they are.

"Clearly what factors in is the opposition fans - the Fulham fans really got on Torres' back last week as you'd expect - while a couple of bad touches and a couple of bad mistakes are magnified. But he's a fantastic player and probably the only one who could effectively replace Drogba if he's not fit or leaves the club; it will just take a bit of time for him to get there."

Le Saux managed to successfully cast off the shackles of his price tag and went on to make more than 150 appearances for the Blues - helping them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 1999. Under the guidance of Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea reached the quarter-finals in their inaugural campaign, exiting - in what would be the first, but certainly not the last, time - to Barcelona, despite having beaten the Catalans 3-1 in the first leg at Stamford Bridge.

It was the beginning of Chelsea's tumultuous love affair with Europe's premier competition and, in every subsequent edition they have played in, the club has reached the knockout stages. Every year, Le Saux expects the Blues to end their duck and claim the continent's biggest prize, and as his former club prepare to take on FC Copenhagen in the last-16, his expectations have not been dampened by a difficult start to 2011.

"I am ever the optimist with the Champions League, every year I think Chelsea are going to win it. We've been so close over recent years - none more so than the Moscow final in 2008. It just feels like something is missing - the Champions League trophy without Chelsea's name on it isn't right. Despite the team being more inconsistent at the moment than we've seen for a while I still think they have major motivation to win the European Cup, especially as they've suffered at the final hurdle so recently.

"It's the big trophy that's missing from Chelsea's cabinet, the one piece of silverware that's eluded the club. If you look at the depth and experience of Chelsea's squad, both in new players and the ones who have been there for a long time - they are all international, world class players so they've certainly got the tools to be there or thereabouts.

"I'm still a great believer that they can win it in the next couple of seasons. If they play as well as they can, I feel that they can beat Barcelona or any other team in Europe. The margins have been so small, when Iniesta scored the late equaliser in 2009, they were agonisingly close to making the final again. These little margins have conspired against the players."

The biggest of those "little margins" came in 2008 in Moscow, when captain John Terry slipped on the Luzhniki turf to miss his penalty and with it the chance to write his name into the Chelsea history books. Le Saux has paid particularly close attention to Terry's career having watched him emerge through the Blues' youth ranks, and he feels that while people talk about the Champions League being the holy grail for Abramovich, there is no-one it would mean more to than the club's skipper.

"The desire to win it is even bigger for every player who has had the opportunity to win and has missed out,'' Le Saux said. ''John knows he should have won it and I'm sure the focus in the dressing-room will always go back to 2008. To lose it in such circumstances was incredibly tough, but John didn't let it destroy him and I think he's stronger mentally for the experience."

Question marks have continued to surface over Terry's form and fitness this season, while the off-field problems of 2010 continue to follow him around the grounds of the Premier League through the abusive chants of opposition fans. The arrival of David Luiz has also cranked up the pressure on the 30-year-old, but Le Saux feels that it would be foolish to write Terry off yet.

"Two things stood out for me when I first encountered John. Firstly was that he always asked questions and was always striving to improve and secondly, he had this unbelievable commitment and desire to be successful,'' he said. ''He wasn't quick, he wasn't that big, but technically he was very good. He's worked so hard to get to that stature and presence he has out on the pitch now.

"He's had an incredible career in terms of the amount of games he's played. He's been wholeheartedly committed, so clearly as you get older your body is going to be less resistant to those players who maybe don't put it all on the line every game. There will come a point when he won't be able to play as many games or train as hard but he is still a world class player and when that moment comes is for him to decide."


Graeme Le Saux was speaking in Geneva for the launch of the Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken. Visit the website for more details.

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