TIME TO STEP OUT OF THE SHADOWS,
Diego Costa may be intent on sulking his way out of Stamford Bridge, but in £60m signing Alvaro Morata, the Blues have found a more level-headed but equally deadly replacement
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 seems like destiny for Conte and Morata to finally link up over the summer, it’s because it probably is.
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 in October 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 that Chelsea need.
“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.