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How to mask a goal drought

It didn’t take long for the humourists to react to Fernando Torres's latest Europea League goal which came against Rubin Kazan on Thursday. “You know,” said one, “maybe Man United need to get one of those masks for one of their strikers”.

Twitter inevitably followed suit. “Breaking news: Fernando Torres’ face-mask has sold at auction for 500,000” tweeted spoof site BBC Sporf. “The winning bidder, a 29-year-old Dutchman, is said to be delighted.”

Is this game fickle or what? Robin van Persie, last season’s Golden Boot winner and this season’s second-highest Premier League goal-getter, is coming in for the kind of social media stick normally associated with... well, with Fernando Torres.

That would be the Fernando Torres who has now notched 20 goals in all competitions this season. Yes, he has played a whopping 52 games to reach this total but it still puts him out in front of Wayne Rooney (16 goals) and the Manchester City trio of Carlos Tevez (16), Sergio Aguero (14) and Edin Dzeko (13). In fact, in terms of English football’s top strikers, his haul is bettered only by that of Van Persie, who has 23 in all as well as three other Footballer of the Year contenders, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale and Michu. Torres, one suspects, will not have received any votes from his peers or journalists.

However Van Persie is now on the receiving end because he has now gone 10 games without scoring for his club – that’s 11 hours and 24 minutes if you’re clock-watching. The closest he has come to scoring in that time was the shot that deflected into Sunderland’s goal off the thigh of Titus Bramble.

His manager doesn’t seem unduly concerned. In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson described his performance in Monday night’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City as “absolutely fantastic”. Yet so precise are the demands we make of strikers (and so unforgiving our scrutiny) that we have jumped on the fact that Van Persie’s current barren spell is two games longer than Torres’s worst run this season (eight games).

Perhaps our morbid interest in the Dutchman’s struggle to return to the score-sheet has been prompted by the undoubted genius of his work at the start of this campaign and throughout the whole of the last. Having been hailed by a rueful Roberto Mancini as a potential title winner, Van Persie opened his Old Trafford account with a beauty against Fulham on his home debut. By the end of January he had scored 22 goals and, especially at the start of the season, single-handedly won matches along the way. He has managed only one goal since.

So, now Van Persie finds himself being compared with Torres – the punching bag of the cruelly critical. With the exception of Liverpool fans perhaps, football lovers have been troubled by the Spaniard’s obvious struggles. Not least because he still ranks as one of the Premier League’s finest imports and also because it’s not that long ago that he won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012.

Unlike Van Persie’s, Torres’s poor goal-scoring spells in recent seasons have also coincided with a broader lack of form. To his, and his fans’ immense frustration, there have been times when the ball has bounced off the striker, times when he has scuffed more shots than he has scorched. Torres has even spoken publicly about his torment and insists on working harder than ever on Chelsea’s training ground to rediscover his “El Nino” form.

When Torres was at his lowest ebb, he endured a nightmare slump between October 2011 and March 2012 when he went 25 hours and 41 minutes without scoring -- a period that took in 24 painful games.

These numbers were broadcast, tweeted and re-tweeted as they grew, like one of those National Debt electronic tickers that run in a public place, causing us to look away in shame.

But how rare was it really for a striker to endure a barren run? One only has to look at Torres’s club, Chelsea, and its goal-scoring records to remind ourselves that some of the club’s all-time greats also endured droughts.

Didier Drogba once went 10 games without a goal, as did Gianluca Vialli. The record-holding Bobby Tambling once failed to score in 12 matches and Roy Bentley suffered for 14. Peter Osgood went goalless for 17 games while Nicolas Anelka endured 18. Remarkably, Gianfranco Zola once went 20 games without scoring.

Away from Chelsea, it famously took Peter Crouch 19 games to score his first goal for Liverpool after his big-money move back in 2005. Uruguayan Diego Forlan enjoyed a sensational career in Spain (top-scoring in La Liga twice) and won the Fifa Golden Ball for best player at the 2010 World Cup. Yet there are those at Old Trafford who still remember him going 26 games without a goal at the start of his Old Trafford career.

Oh, and did I mention the 50-million pound price tag? Just a guess but that might have done something to further focus the critical gaze on Senor Torres. Robin van Persie was a snip in comparison at half the price but even he must be feeling the heat a little. Granted, he scored three goals in two appearances for the Dutch not that long ago, but he will be the first to admit that a league goal this weekend at Stoke would not go amiss.

If Van Persie still needs a reminder that form is temporary and class permanent, he need look no further than his strike partner Wayne Rooney who went without scoring a goal from open play between March 2010 and January 1 2011. He shrugged off the negative press and notched 27 goals in 34 league appearances the following season.

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