Fernando Torres, the one that got away

Were Roberto Mancini to have had his way, Torres's army of admirers would be buying a sky-blue shirt now.

The court of public opinion can be very, very wrong but popular approval and critical acclaim are not mutually exclusive. For proof, we need only look at the lithe figure in Liverpool's No 9 shirt: Fernando Torres. For the past two seasons, the combination of the Spanish striker and the Merseyside club has proved the most lucrative.

His has been the most popular replica kit for a Premier League player sold around the world. The reasons are obvious: 18 goals in 20 league starts last season, 56 in 69 in his Liverpool career, an ability to ally graceful movement with potent finishing. He is the elegant assassin. Fans can be found across the planet and along the East Lancs Road, which connects Liverpool and Manchester. Were Roberto Mancini to have had his way, Torres's army of admirers would be buying a sky-blue shirt now. He, not Emmanuel Adebayor, would be Manchester City's No 9 and, rather than Mario Balotelli or David Silva, the star signing.

Perhaps it was City's inability to secure Champions League football, perhaps a sign of Torres's enduring loyalty to Liverpool, perhaps proof of Roy Hodgson's credibility, but his trip to Eastlands today is only a visit. After appearing threateningly sharp in the second half of the Europa League game against Turkey's Trabzonspor, Hodgson should be able to name Torres in his side for the first time and that, in turn, should be enough to prompt memories of his last start in east Manchester.

In October 2008, City appeared a club on the ascent when they took a two-goal lead against Liverpool. A Torres-inspired comeback later, two goals from the Spaniard and a last-minute Dirk Kuyt winner, left City deflated. Last season, meanwhile, a semi-fit Torres appeared for the last 15 minutes of a wary, watchful stalemate that represented a phoney war in the battle for fourth place that, ultimately, neither won.

Now the renewal of the rivalry has added implications. It is not merely about Torres, but about a place in the game's echelon. City covet what Liverpool have had - Champions League football on an annual basis as well as, further in the past, a dominance in both England and Europe - while two upwardly-mobile managers, Mancini and Hodgson, operate in wildly different circumstances. The Englishman could hand a league debut to Christian Poulsen, his £4.5 million (Dh26.9m) buy from Juventus; the Italian may be able to field the four costliest components of his £126m spending spree. Had Torres been so inclined, that sum could have been nearer £200m.

As it is, Mancini has the chance to give James Milner a bow and Balotelli an introduction to the Premier League after his catalytic contribution as a substitute against FC Timisoara of Romania in the Europa League. His first-choice full-backs, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov, are absent so alternatives are required as well as the cutting edge that eluded City in the goalless draw at White Hart Lane last week. He has, in Carlos Tevez, a stockier spearhead than the sleek Torres and the option of the enigmatic Adebayor.

Yet what the stalemate with Tottenham Hotspur showed is the importance of selecting the strongest side for season-defining fixtures. Even at such an early stage, this is such a game. The issue is who comprises City's finest team. Mancini's job is to perm 11 from 25, Hodgson's to try and strengthen around a core who must play. City have the squad, Liverpool the two proven match-winners. Indeed, they may be united in attack. Hodgson's main dilemma is whether to restore Steven Gerrard to his past role as Torres's accomplice as Joe Cole, who has been deployed in the free role, is suspended after his dismissal against Arsenal. Daniel Agger and Javier Mascherano are both fit again. It will be understandable, though, if all eyes are on Torres.

sports@thenational.ae Man City v Liverpool, today, 11pm, ADMC Sport 3 & 5; to order: 600-2388 or www.admcsport.com