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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Alvaro Morata – Enigma at Chelsea but potentially vital for Spain in Uefa Nations League

Not always at his best in the Premier League, Spanish forward needs to gain his country’s trust – and to trust himself

Spain forward Alvaro Morata, right, has had a chequered career at Chelsea so far. Getty Images
Spain forward Alvaro Morata, right, has had a chequered career at Chelsea so far. Getty Images

There are a few ways to combat the broad range of centre-forward skills possessed by Alvaro Morata.

There is the rugged route, exemplified last Sunday by towering Everton defender Yerry Mina: hand clasped around Morata's throat, eyes fixed on the marked man not the ball and a hefty, barely disguised push. Morata ought to have earned a penalty for that, but in the course of an exasperating 0-0 draw, he was not having much luck.

Everton also stymied him with more sophisticated methods.

They made him lose his bearings and caught him offside a startling five times in single game. While he might call that unfortunate, it is a habit. Morata is way out on top of the overall leaderboard for offside flags – 15 this season – in a Premier League where he has played only two-thirds of possible match-time.

That points to something not quite fully calibrated in his runs.

It seems the other way to block Morata is to puncture his confidence, something this most enigmatic striker has spoken openly about. Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri described him as "fragile" last week, while praising Morata’s improved form since early October.

The player himself said at Las Rozas, his national team’s training base in Madrid, he had been in “a black hole” psychologically this year.

Morata hopes to lead the line for his country on Thursday night against Croatia in Zagreb. A victory there would secure Spain’s place in next summer’s inaugural Uefa Nations League finals, and from there to assume the long-term responsibilities up front for La Roja that once seemed his natural entitlement.

It is four years to the day since he made his Spain debut, a 22 year old fresh from the hard decision to leave Real Madrid for Juventus and gain minutes on the field and maturity. Since then, he has won 24 more caps while moving back from Juve to Madrid and on to Chelsea.

That is quite a collection of employers to have accumulated before your 25th birthday, and quite a bunch of medals: two Primera Liga titles, a pair of Italian scudetti, and two Uefa Champions League golds.

Some big fees, too: Morata has variously been signed by the reigning champions of Italy, of England and of Europe for sums totalling more than €120 million (Dh497m). All invested in an athlete who, at his best, can look the complete penalty box predator, commanding in the air, two-footed, and far cannier with his movement that those offside statistics suggest.

Success, as he put it, is about more than that. "You have train your mind as well," he said.

His has not always been primed and fully match-fit. It is a year since Morata scored the last of his 13 international goals, bookending a phase of peak format.

This time 12 months ago, he had introduced himself to the Premier League with a bang – eight goals from his first 12 league games for Chelsea. Then came the fade.

His momentum was interrupted by a back injury, by Chelsea’s brittle defence of their title, by competition for the shirt from Olivier Giroud – a January arrival at Stamford Bridge – and by formations featuring no orthodox centre-forward at all.

“I hit rock bottom,” he said, and saw his masterplan fizzle. “I had left Real Madrid to go to Chelsea to help get to the World Cup.”

Spain’s then manager Julen Lopetegui omitted Morata from his chosen 23 for Russia. After Spain's unhappy trip there, he was recalled immediately by new manager Luis Enrique.

Morata has yet to start in a Nations League fixture under the new stewardship, but when he came on in the second-half of last month's surprise defeat to England, he helped galvanise the attack. With Morata on the pitch, Spain came back from 3-0 down to 3-2.

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Read more:

Chelsea star Alvaro Morata needs goals to boost confidence, says manager Sarri

Alvaro Morata says he considered leaving Chelsea after a forgettable first season

Jon Turner: Chelsea must show same patience with Morata as they did with Drogba

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Chelsea's Alvaro Morata, left, and Cesar Azpilicueta should be able to combine well for Spain. EPA
Chelsea's Alvaro Morata, left, and Cesar Azpilicueta should be able to combine well for Spain. EPA

Four Chelsea goals in his last five outings press his case for Thursday night.

Rodrigo Moreno, the alternative, is without a goal for his club Valencia since August, while Morata offers a physical presence that Iago Aspas, the pocket rocket from Celta Vigo, does not. With Barcelona’s attacking left-back Jordi Alba recalled – apparently having patched up differences with Enrique – Spain will look for width and precise crosses to their spearhead striker.

Cesar Azpilicueta, Morata’s favourite ally and Chelsea teammate, can supply those from the right.

Morata, boosted by the confidence shown in him by Enrique and by Sarri, knows he must seize his moments, that there are few roles in the Spain team as debated as the No 9.

This is a national team that, in devouring the biggest prizes in the sport in the four years from 2008, often dispensed with a target man of any sort. They still have Diego Costa to return from injury. Paco Alcacer is making headlines for prolific finishing at Borussia Dortmund, although a light injury keeps him out of the Croatia game .

Morata needs to gain his country’s trust, and to trust himself, through thick and thin.