Just a few weeks ago it seemed sure that Fernando Torres return to his boyhood club Atletico Madrid was going to end on a disappointingly bum note.
With his current Atletico deal ending in June, there was no sign of any extension forthcoming as he approached his 32nd birthday while going 19 games and five months stuck on 99 goals for the Estadio Vicente Calderon club.
But a pretty remarkable turnaround has seen Torres come out of the slump into possibly the best form of his life - and the second coming of El Nino could well be the most glorious of his entire career.
The seemingly interminable, and definitely embarrassing, wait for goal number 100 finally ended against Eibar at the Calderon in early February, when as a late substitute he prodded home from close range with the game already won.
On the final whistle that afternoon, the former Atletico youth teamer removed his jersey to hand it to Manuel Brinas, 75, the scout who spotted him as a skinny 10-year-old over two decades ago. It was an emotional moment, and many Colchoneros fans and pundits were happy that they had witnessed it.
It seemed a fitting enough end to what has been an up and down 18 months since Torres returned to the Calderon, in a complex loan deal involving both Chelsea and Milan, in January 2015.
Around then older Atletico fans delighted in telling their sons and daughters about the angel-faced local boy who debuted in 2001 aged 17, during one of the roughest times in the club’s entire history. The kid had helped return the team to the top flight as captain, and then helped fix a hole in the club’s finances when he left for Liverpool in summer 2007 for a badly needed €30 million.
Torres himself surfed this wave of emotion and adrenalin, quickly scoring goals in big games against both Barcelona and Real Madrid. But soon reality appeared to catch up with him. Atletico finished the season without winning any trophies, and after his barren run earlier this season, even coach Diego Simeone was making it clear that a final break was likely this coming summer.
Now though, everything has changed. After the wait for goal 100 ended against Eibar, a weight was lifted from Torres’ shoulders too. He scored again the following weekend, the winner at Getafe, and has barely stopped scoring since. Of his 10 goals this season, eight have come in the last 13 games as Atletico have kept up their challenge in both La Liga and the Champions League.
Torres’ contribution has also been crucial without the ball - through his constant running, physical presence and hassling of opponents. He did overstep the mark when being sent off in the UCL quarter-final first leg at the Camp Nou, but younger teammates such as Antoine Griezmann and Angel Correa now take their lead from his aggression and enthusiasm.
The confidence which had appeared lost way back in the past has also returned. The winning goal at Athletic Bilbao recently, a textbook unstoppable header from Antoine Griezmann’s pinpoint cross, meant Torres had scored in five consecutive games. Even at the height of his powers at Liverpool almost a decade ago he never managed such a run.
“[Torres] is going through a very big moment,” Simeone said after the Athletic game. “He helps the team to keep competing. It was a great move, he scored a good goal, with a superb header. That strengthens him and the team for all that is coming.”
The upturn in Torres’ form has coincided with a growing connection with midfield playmaker Koke. The relationship between the two recalled how Koke used to regularly spring Diego Costa behind defences during Atletico’s La Liga title win two years ago.
The goals against Real Betis and Granada recently were both also very reminiscent of Torres’ collection of Xavi’s pass, outmuscling of Philipp Lahm and finish past Manuel Neuer, for the winning goal all the way back in the Euro 2008 final.
Such outstanding form, and an outburst of nostalgia among Spanish fans and pundits, have lead to not outrageous calls that Torres return to the La Roja squad for the summer’s European Championships in France. Although he has not played internationally since the 2014 World Cup, coach Vicente Del Bosque has appeared to suggest recently that a recall could happen.
Torres himself has played down that idea, with securing a new contract to stay with the club next season his main goal. Speaking on the El Larguero radio show recently he said he was attracted by the idea of emulating Francesco Totti, who is still at Roma well past his 39th birthday.
As the weeks have gone past though, the chance for immediate La Liga or Champions League glory, or even both, has come into focus. One of world football’s most garlanded ever careers has brought him the Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League with Chelsea, and the Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 titles with Spain, but his only medal during either period with Atletico comes from the 2001/02 Segunda Division.
Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich at the Calderon, he admitted that bringing a first European Cup trophy to his boyhood club would top everything else he has achieved to date.
“I feel very fortunate to have played in great teams, have had unbelievable nights and trophies with Spain,” Torres said. “But for me personally, nothing could compare to doing it with Atleti. We want to write a new chapter in the club’s history.”
Such a fairytale ending to the season definitely seemed unbelievable just a few weeks' ago. But it is looking increasingly likely now.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan