Torres double repays Benitez's faith
Fernando Torres repaid Rafael Benitez's faith as the much-maligned Spain striker fired Chelsea to a crucial 3-1 win at Sunderland on Saturday.
Torres has been under fire for much of his 23-month spell at Stamford Bridge, but Blues owner Roman Abramovich hoped Benitez, who got the best out of the forward at Liverpool, could breathe new life into his Blues career and the early signs suggest he may do just that.
Rather than axe Torres after he failed to score in Benitez's first three matches as Chelsea's interim boss, the Spaniard kept faith and has been rewarded with four goals in the £50 million striker's last two appearances.
Torres netted twice in the midweek Champions League win over Nordsjaelland, but his first-half double at the Stadium of Light was far more significant as it secured Chelsea's first win in their last eight Premier League games and gave the former Atletico Madrid star his first league goals for two months.
Juan Mata got Chelsea's third goal soon after halftime and, although Adam Johnson got one back for Sunderland, the win moved Benitez's side to within four points of second-placed Manchester City.
For Sunderland, yet another home defeat has piled further pressure on Martin O'Neill, whose side tumbled into the bottom three for the first time this season following their dismal run of one win in their last 10 league matches.
There was a poise and purpose about Chelsea's early play, as exemplified by the slick second-minute move that might have resulted in a penalty when Seb Larsson appeared to pull back Eden Hazard in the area.
Sunderland breathed another sigh of relief when Simon Mignolet saved at the feet of Torres after John O'Shea's wayward defensive header teed up the Spaniard on the corner of the six-yard box, but Chelsea did not have to wait much longer for the opening goal.
It was an especially sweet moment for Torres, who ended a Premier League barren spell of 12-and-a-half hours when he converted Hazard's cross with an instinctive volley.
The Belgian delivered a teasing centre from the left, and Torres stole between O'Shea and full-back Danny Rose to volley home.
Sunderland had barely mustered a threat at that stage, and while the hosts enjoyed a brief spell of pressure midway through the first half, they rarely looked like troubling a Chelsea defence still denied the services of the injured John Terry.
Petr Cech produced a smart parry to deny Stephane Sessegnon after the Benin international had raced on to Connor Wickham's flick-on, but there was a sense of inevitability when Chelsea doubled their lead on the stroke of halftime.
Larsson needlessly fouled Ramires in the corner of the area, and Torres calmly converted from the spot to claim his fourth goal of the week.
He could hardly have come closer to his fifth four minutes into the second half, drilling a fierce strike against the top of the left-hand post after Phil Bardsley's failure to control the ball in his own area proved costly.
Fortunately, from a Chelsea perspective, Spanish midfielder Mata was on hand to convert the rebound and extend the visitors' lead.
Sunderland briefly threatened a fightback when Johnson drilled a low finish past Cech in the 66th minute, but the result was never in doubt despite Craig Gardner hitting the crossbar in stoppage-time.