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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Costa who? Alvaro Morata bags first hat-trick of Chelsea career in rout of Stoke

Understanding with compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta has led to four of the Spanish striker's six Premier League goals.

Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata celebrates his second and Chelsea's third goal against Stoke City. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata celebrates his second and Chelsea's third goal against Stoke City. Andrew Yates / Reuters

The best forwards have a sense of timing. Alvaro Morata exhibited it in more ways than one. By scoring after 83 seconds, he turned a potentially awkward game at a ground where Arsenal and Manchester United have already stumbled into a stroll.

By finding the net three times two days after Chelsea agreed to sell Diego Costa to Atletico Madrid, he ensured this was a day to celebrate the striker they have signed, not mourn the one they are losing.

Costa’s idiosyncrasies may make him irreplaceable in the sense that he is inimitable. That combination of menace, mischief-making and muscularity means his contribution cannot be duplicated. Yet strip away the trouble-making, the rancour and the potential to irritate opponents and what is left is a prolific finisher.

And in that respect, Chelsea replaced Costa even before he left. Morata’s £58 million (Dh288m) price tag and the pedigree of a Real Madrid and Juventus performer meant he always seemed a low-risk, high-class recruit. So, after initial difficulties, he is proving.

The scorers may symbolise Chelsea. Their season had a false start, but the champions are back on track. The same applies to two attackers. Pedro was sent off in the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal. Morata missed a penalty in the shoot-out.

This was a truer indication of his capabilities. “Alvaro performed very well,” said manager Antonio Conte. “He scored a hat-trick and for a striker that’s very important.”

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The second-minute opener was the most significant. Stoke’s new-look rearguard were static as Cesar Azpilicueta chipped a pass over them. Morata advanced and poked a shot past Jack Butland for his first Chelsea goal with either foot.

His movement is magnificent. He is less abrasive and aggressive than Costa, but he can glide into space. Conte, in a comment few have made about Costa, had described Morata as ideal son-in-law material. That niceness disguises a ruthless streak. He capitalised on Stoke’s defensive difficulties. They began without four injured or ineligible centre-backs.

“Extenuating circumstances,” said Stoke manager Mark Hughes. Then the one remaining specialist, Bruno Martins Indi, injured his groin.

“Once we were down to no centre-backs, they were able to put a little bit of gloss,” Hughes added.

Morata promptly surged clear to score Chelsea’s third. When Azpilicueta chested the ball into his path, he completed a hat-trick. It was a sign of the symbiotic relationship between the two Spaniards. Azpilicueta created four of his compatriot’s six goals, a sign how penetrating his passing and crossing can be. If the assumption was that Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas would be competing to be Morata’s creator in chief, an outsider, in Azpilicueta, has usurped them.

Once again, he was terrific. In contrast, Stoke were luckless, but they were also hapless at key moments.

“You can’t win Premier League games if you make catastrophic errors and we made at least three,” Hughes added.

The second goal stemmed from their stand-in captain. Darren Fletcher tried to chest the ball to Martins Indi, only succeeded in picking out Pedro and watched disconsolately as the Spaniard seized the chance with pinpoint precision.

Conte’s Chelsea have been defined by efficiency and this was a supremely efficient performance. They scored with their first four shots on target. But for a goal-line clearance from Glen Johnson to deny Morata, they would have made it five from five.

They also used their resources efficiently in the smallest game of a week where they face Atletico and Manchester City.

Conte only used Hazard for 18 minutes and Gary Cahill for 30, and the plan may have been to rest the captain altogether.

“Marcos Alonso should have been sent off,” Hughes said. Instead the booked wing-back was swiftly removed by Conte, sending for Cahill and sparing his side a sixth red card in 10 games.

With some justification, he argued Peter Crouch was fortunate to finish the game after a lunge at Fabregas. Yet in a game of striking storylines, Crouch’s tale was only a subplot.

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