Atletico v Real Madrid: Alvaro Morata faces examination by derby in crucial La Liga game
Spanish forward to play first league match in Atletico shirt against former side Real with second place in table at stake
As Alvaro Morata went into his medical, the last of several hurdles en route to confirming his loan move to Atletico Madrid in late January, he noted he was travelling a well-beaten path.
Last season, Diego Costa was going through the same ritual. In January 2015, Fernando Torres was being checked out. You almost wonder if Atletico have a special physician on hand to assess for post-Chelsea recuperation syndrome.
Morata, like Torres and Costa before him, welcomes the opportunity because things had taken a turn for the worse at the West London club where the challenges for centre-forwards can seem uniquely complicated. And like Torres and Costa before him, he can legitimately say that joining the Primera Liga club is a return to his roots.
But there is a distinction: Torres and Costa had launched their elite careers at Atletico, and coming back was to be assured a warm greeting from a large section of the support-base.
Morata has an Atletico past, certainly, but his was confined to club’s youth ranks, where he progressed as a schoolboy striker. By the age of 16, he had crossed the city, and it is as a former Real Madrid player that the Spain international is most vividly remembered.
That has already been problematic in terms of winning universal approval for his recruitment from some of the noisier voices around the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. There, thanks to a sharp irony of the calendar, Morata should make his first appearance as an Atletico footballer on Saturday - against Real Madrid.
Examination by derby. And a derby with a great deal at stake even beyond the standard, raucous local enmity. A Real victory would leapfrog the European champions above Atletico into second place in the table and have the better form, with wins from their last four Spanish league matches.
Atletico are coming off a defeat at Real Betis last weekend, where, on his club debut, Morata did little to correct the impression of a striker whose confidence has receded alarmingly over the past 12 months. Morata only joined Chelsea from Real a year and a half ago, for close to €80 million (Dh333m).
He scored six goals in his first six Premier League outings. After that, he managed only another 10 from 41 matches and sensed his place in the hierarchy at the London club had slipped once Chelsea began their determined pursuit of Gonzalo Higuain.
What Morata, 26, does know is Atletico manager Diego Simeone values him, and has done for a long time. Simeone lobbied for Morata to join Atletico during at least one of the long periods when he was used mostly - and effectively - as a substitute at Real. Morata chose to join Juventus, where he advanced his reputation over two seasons up until 2016, when - in what he might now fear was part of a pattern - Juve signed Higuain.
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And Simeone’s motivational powers can be magical. Although Diego Costa’s return to Atletico has been hampered by injury lately, he scored three goals in his first five games back at the club. Torres, after a long slump at Chelsea, found his mojo again at the club he grew up with.
The plan for Morata is clear, and logical enough. Atletico want a target man for Antoine Griezmann, their most reliable attacker, to play off, an aerial threat - a Morata forte - and a footballer who can complement their counter-attacking strengths.
“Antoine likes to play with someone ahead of him, and Alvaro opens up those possibilities,” Simeone said. “We now have a true finisher.”
Soon he will have a wider choice up front, too, with Costa on his way back from a foot operation and, Simeone hopes, stimulated by competition for a starting place by the arrival of Morata.
Costa is not deemed ready for Saturday, where Morata faces several battles with his past. He will be up against Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, the Madrid defenders with whom he won the Uefa Champions League in 2014 and 2017.
And he will confront Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was his Chelsea colleague for a year until last July and who may seem an ally, in a peculiar sort of way, come Saturday. Courtois was an Atletico player for three seasons, a league winner, a Cup winner and a Champions League finalist under Simeone.
The Belgian will be reminded of that ahead of the derby, and none too flatteringly in several parts of the stadium.
Updated: February 8, 2019 08:46 AM