Considering their consistent excellence over the last three years, it is no great surprise to see Atletico Madrid standing shoulder to shoulder with Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga’s title race.
But the identity of the man who is spearheading their challenge certainly comes as a major shock to the system.
Just a few weeks ago, Fernando Torres was effectively on the scrapheap with his career apparently in irreversible decline. Seemingly unwanted by boss Diego Simeone, he couldn’t even break into the team despite the struggles endured by big-money summer signing Jackson Martinez, and the question of when he would score his 100th goal for Atletico had become a running joke.
Torres reached 99 in a victory over Eibar in September and then, like a nervous batsman on the verge of his maiden Test match century, he got stuck there. For weeks, and weeks.
Eventually, nearly five months later, another meeting with Eibar saw Torres finally break into double figures, and the celebrations that followed among Atletico fans had a sentimental, nostalgic feel, as though they were marking the postscript to the outstanding career of one of their favourite sons.
Since then, however, Torres has enjoyed arguably one of the most spectacular and unexpected renaissances in recent sporting history.
A week after netting his 100th goal, he scored again – a winner at Getafe. Then he got another, giving his team the lead in a 3-1 victory over Valencia which helped seal Gary Neville’s fate at Mestalla.
And now, crazily, Torres just can’t stop, with his classily taken effort in Sunday’s 3-0 home win over Granada marking the first time he has scored in four consecutive games since 2010.
They aren’t just any old goals, either – they are vital strikes for a team which is competing for two of the most prestigious trophies in the world: an equaliser which led to victory at Espanyol, the opener in a home win over Real Betis and, most significantly, a drilled strike against Barcelona which eventually secured passage into the last four of the Champions League.
From being a national joke, he is now being talked about – seriously – as a potential late call-up for Spain’s European Championships squad to solve national coach Vicente Del Bosque’s biggest dilemma: a reliable striker.
For a player who last represented his country nearly two years ago in the disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign and whose international career was widely assumed to be over, the fact he is even being mentioned is a remarkable turnaround.
The former Liverpool and Chelsea striker’s revival tells us a lot about his attitude – the never-say-die spirit which made him such a popular figure with Atletico fans when he first broke into the team as a teenager all those years ago.
It also tells us a lot about Simeone’s ability to extract the utmost out of the players at his disposal. If players are prepared to work hard and buy into his system (Martinez being an example of one who didn’t), Simeone has that knack of making them better than anyone ever thought they could be.
A look at some of the decidedly ordinary players who became Spanish champions with Atletico two years ago (Diego, Adrian, Jose Sosa, Cristian Rodriguez) is enough to prove that point, and Torres is benefitting in the same way.
Now, the striker’s long-term future appears to be safe – his loan deal from AC Milan expires at the end of the season and, until recently, Atletico did not appear to be inclined to keep him. But that has all changed, and a permanent deal is expected to be agreed in the coming weeks.
First, though, he has other things on his mind: trophies. And the way things are going, we shouldn’t rule out the prospect of Torres completing his fairytale comeback by scoring an injury time winner against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.