TIME TO STEP OUT OF THE SHAD­OWS,

Diego Costa may be in­tent on sulk­ing his way out of Stam­ford Bridge, but in $100m sign­ing Al­varo Mo­rata, the Blues have found a more level-headed but equally deadly re­place­ment

Australian Four Four Two - - FEATURES - Words An­drew Mur­ray

Rewind a decade and cen­tre-for­wards came in all dif­fer­ent shapes, sizes and func­tions. There was the cloud-scrap­ing tar­get­man, the speed mer­chant, the poacher who spent so much time in­side the box they should’ve been charged rent, and the hon­est work­horse whose sole tal­ent was run­ning around a lot. Di­dier Drogba and Lionel Messi changed every­thing. The former as the Ivo­rian was the equiv­a­lent of the above four play­ers in one; the latter be­cause such is the diminu­tive Ar­gen­tine’s in­cred­i­ble tal­ent, it doesn’t mat­ter that he isn’t 6ft 4in or built like an ar­moured tank. Drogba could act as a one-man for­ward line – a pro­lific tar­get­man ca­pa­ble of run­ning be­hind de­fences, with the added ad­van­tage that the ex­tra man could join a mid­field three with no loss of goal threat. Put sim­ply, the goals alone are not enough. Al­varo Mo­rata may not have Drogba’s hulk­ing frame or im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor Diego Costa’s psy­chotic will to win, but Chelsea gaffer An­to­nio Conte may have re­cruited a more com­plete player. The Real Madrid youth prod­uct has got the pace to run be­hind de­fences, the strength to hold up the ball, the tech­nique to bring mid­field­ers into play and an eye for goal which brought 20 from 43 ap­pear­ances last term, at an av­er­age of one ev­ery 89 min­utes. And if it seemed like des­tiny for Conte and Mo­rata to fi­nally link up over the off-sea­son, it’s be­cause it prob­a­bly was. Conte put the wheels in mo­tion for the Spa­niard’s two sea­sons at Ju­ven­tus in 2014 be­fore leav­ing to man­age Italy, and nearly signed the front­man a year ago be­fore Mo­rata went back to Real Madrid. “This guy’s go­ing to win the league there,” Mo­rata’s fa­ther Al­fonso told his son. Fur­ther proof you should al­ways lis­ten to your old man. It took Chelsea’s new No.9 only 10 min­utes to prove why his boss has invested so much time in his re­cruit­ment re­cently. Un­daunted by a missed penalty in the Com­mu­nity Shield shootout a week ear­lier, or star­ing down the bar­rel of a 3-0 em­bar­rass­ment against Burn­ley in the Blues’ Pre­mier League’s opener, Mo­rata scored a header and pro­vided an as­sist for David Luiz as the hosts nearly sal­vaged a draw. He’s spent most of his ca­reer fight­ing against in­sur­mount­able odds. When, aged 14, a for­ma­tion switch in the Atletico Madrid youth team (in which he played along­side David de Gea and Koke) put him on the bench, he con­sid­ered ded­i­cat­ing him­self to tennis. In­stead, via a year at Getafe, he crossed the Span­ish cap­i­tal and bagged more than 30 goals in a tro­phy-laden 2009-10 cam­paign. De­spite the Bern­abeu’s vast at­tack­ing riches, he be­came a reg­u­lar mem­ber of Carlo Ancelotti’s 2013-14 Cham­pi­ons League-winning squad. It was at Ju­ven­tus, how­ever, that Mo­rata first served no­tice of the all-round tal­ent that lurks within. The Serie A ti­tle, Coppa Italia and an­other Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal – in which he scored in a 3-1 de­feat by Barcelona, hav­ing knocked out Real Madrid in the last four – fol­lowed. That sea­son’s 15 goals from 46 ap­pear­ances may not seem the great­est re­turn, but Mo­rata had been the Old Lady’s fo­cal point and first at­tack­ing out­let. Like in the Atletico youth team, how­ever, a tac­ti­cal tweak curbed his ef­fec­tive­ness in his sec­ond sea­son. Shunted out to the left wing to make way for new sign­ing Mario Mandzu­kic, he lost con­fi­dence and went 115 days with­out scor­ing. It didn’t help that Real Madrid ap­peared in­creas­ingly keen to ex­er­cise their buy-back op­tion at the end of the 2015-16 cam­paign. “I have grown in foot­ball terms and in hu­man ones too,” he told The Guardian. “Peo­ple think we’re ma­chines; they don’t re­alise that be­hind a bad run there is al­most al­ways a per­sonal prob­lem, some fam­ily is­sue. You have feel­ings, you make mis­takes, you’re a per­son. “I had left home young, I’d fought to play for Ju­ven­tus and I was ‘con­di­tioned’ by Madrid hav­ing a buy-back op­tion that didn’t de­pend on me. I didn’t know my fu­ture. All that af­fected me and I let my­self slide a bit. I be­came dis­tracted.” Helped through that dif­fi­cult spell by goal­keep­ing great Gian­luigi Buf­fon – “Mo­rata isn’t aware of just how good he is at times, he has the gift only the top play­ers have” – and his now-wife Alice, Al­varo headed back to the Bern­abeu. De­spite play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to Karim Ben­zema for much of the 2016-17 sea­son, it was with a heavy heart that Real sold ar­guably their most suc­cess­ful re­cent youth grad­u­ate for a sec­ond time – one who has now ap­peared in three of the last four Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals. In many ways, Mo­rata is the anti-Diego Costa. He didn’t ag­i­tate for a move, keen not to burn his bridges with Los Blan­cos, and he re­mains a pic­ture of serene calm on the pitch, fo­cused purely on scor­ing goals. How he re­acts to text mes­sages from his boss, how­ever, is un­known. In short, Chelsea have got the com­plete pack­age – one who turns 25 this month and will con­tinue to im­prove. With Eden Hazard, Pe­dro and Wil­lian be­hind to load the bul­lets from the wings – eight of his first 15 goals of 2017 were scored with his head – Mo­rata is ex­actly the striker Chelsea needed. “Raul may not be a 10 out of 10 in any­thing,” Real Madrid leg­end Fer­nando Hierro once told FFT about his team-mate who won three Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles, scor­ing in the fi­nal of two of them, “but he’s a nine in ab­so­lutely every­thing.” Chelsea have now prised Raul’s heir ap­par­ent away from Madrid, some­one seem­ingly glued to the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal. An­other one this sea­son, and the Spa­niard won’t have gone too far wrong.

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