Morata making the most of his time in the spotlight
Alvaro Morata was only a few weeks into life at Chelsea when some of the vulnerability that has cropped up during his career appeared to strike again.
“They’re already killing me,” Morata said of his perceived critics following his miss in Chelsea’s penalty shootout loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield.
They were worrying words from a player who was about to start the season as the undisputed No. 1 striker at a top club for the first time.
Could he handle filling the boots of the larger-than-life Diego Costa, a title-winning striker who would become estranged from Chelsea? How would he adapt in a new country following his move from Real Madrid? Could he live with his club-record transfer fee, an initial 58 million pounds (now $77.5 million)?
It turns out there was no need to worry.
Morata has been one of the revelations in the early weeks of the Premier League, scoring six goals in six games and showing with his movement, aerial ability and turn of pace that he can be the heir — albeit a different, slicker version — to Costa and Didier Drogba before him.
On Wednesday, Morata scored the equalizer to spark Chelsea’s comeback in its 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid and next faces leader Manchester City in the biggest match of the Premier League season so far.
“I think he is showing,” Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has said, “that he is a really complete player.”
Conte suspected as much three years ago. Then the Juventus coach, it was Conte who set up the transfer of Morata to the Italian club from Madrid in July 2014, only to resign a few days before the move was completed to take over as Italy coach.
Conte has finally got to work with the Spain striker, and likes what he sees.
At 24, Morata is making the most of his belated time in the spotlight. In two spells at Madrid (2010-14 and 2016-17), he was popular and proved to be an opportunistic finisher but never established himself as the first-choice striker ahead of Karim Benzema.
At Juventus from 2014-16, Morata had an impressive first season — the best of his career, during which he scored twice in the 2015 Champions League semifinals to help eliminate Madrid — before a dip in his second and an eventual move back to Madrid on a buy-back option.
Still, Morata only started around half of the league matches during his time at Juve and the club’s goalkeeping great, Gianluigi Buffon, said the striker had “negative thoughts in his last period” with the team.
Morata has spoken in other interviews of his mental fragility and frustration at not being given a real chance at club level to prove his worth. To many, Morata is regarded as a so-called “super-sub,” clearly a natural finisher and a danger in the final minutes to swing results but someone who mostly excels as a back-up.
He scored 20 goals in all competitions for Madrid last season, despite having just 14 starts in La Liga and one in the Champions League.
“Alvaro, don’t forget, in his previous experience didn’t play a lot at Juventus or at Real Madrid,” Conte said after Morata’s hat trick against Stoke in the Premier League last weekend. “Now he has a great chance to show that he is a really good striker.”
Costa’s drawn-out transfer to Atletico Madrid was sealed this week, only serving to confirm that Morata really is the main man up front at Chelsea. It’s time to see how a player with just 54 top-flight league starts can cope in a grueling, intense season in the Premier League.
Sitting atop the Premier League scorers’ chart with Romelu Lukaku and Sergio Aguero, it hasn’t been a bad start.
Here’s what else to watch out for this weekend:
Morata will need to break down a Man City defense that has conceded just one goal in six games this month, and three goals in nine games all season.
City’s attack has been getting plenty of plaudits with the team averaging four goals a game this month, but the defense is holding up even without injured captain Vincent Kompany and its full backs playing virtually as wingers.
Left back Benjamin Mendy will be unavailable this weekend, however, while he awaits the results of tests on a right knee injury sustained last week.
The Manchester clubs are the only teams yet to lose in the league.
While City’s unbeaten start will be put under severe pressure at Stamford Bridge, United is expected to have an easy afternoon on Saturday against Crystal Palace — a team with the unwanted English top-flight record of having no point and no goals after six matches.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80