Morata finding his feet after Atletico offer fresh start
Alvaro Morata has made a habit of looking lost and aggrieved during five years wandering Europe's biggest clubs but in Atletico Madrid he may finally have found one to call home.
Three goals in two games and another couple ruled out by VAR mean Morata looks a player revived since his January loan move from Chelsea.
He started well there too, before confidence shrivelled to the point where faith from fans and coaches turned to frustration, and a belief he was contributing to his own decline.
Yet there is reason to suspect the early surge at Atletico may be longer-lasting, with a return to Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday offering a reminder of how one of the game's most enigmatic talents is, aged 26, still to deliver on his potential.
"Alvaro has fantastic assets that suit our game," said Diego Simeone last month. "Hopefully he can continue the way he has started."
Strong in the air, hardly sluggish, good with his feet and, at his best, decisive in front of goal, Morata has still struggled to convince an impressive list of managers he is a striker to rely on.
From Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, to Max Allegri at Juventus, and Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, none were prepared to make him their number one for an extended period of time.
- High expectations -
In seven seasons, including three at Real and two each at Chelsea and Juve, Morata made 97 appearances as a substitute and only 84 in the starting line-up. Between the age of 19 and 26, he has invariably been looking in from the outside.
The problem has not been so much technical or physical -- although some believe he could do more with his 6ft 2in frame -- but mental, a tendency to feel sorry for himself and hide. The result was too often games, and weeks, passing him by.
At Chelsea, the contrast was all the more stark given he followed Diego Costa and, less directly, Didier Drogba, who each set the standard for the kind of warrior-striker that not only scores goals but fights, harries and hurts the opposition too.
"People expect a lot from Chelsea's number nine," Sarri's assistant Gianfranco Zola said, before Morata left in January. "They expect goals and great performances. Alvaro has to get used to it."
In that sense, Morata will not find any more sympathy at Atletico, where Costa has returned and is now his rival for a place alongside Antoine Griezmann, who would surely post more remarkable figures himself, were he not asked to do so much defensive work.
- Trusting coach -
But Simeone has welcomed Morata with open arms, supporting him before he even arrived while a minority of fans scoffed at his history with Real Madrid. "People can say what they want," said Simeone in January. "I look for players that serve the club and the team."
When Morata joined, perhaps because of his time at Real, Atletico seemed eager to frame him as the childhood fan coming home.
This was the ball-boy at the Vicente Calderon and during his official presentation, they put on a montage of his journey through the club's youth teams.
There were photos of him with Fernando Torres while Morata posted a picture of himself online as a child wearing the Atletico kit. "With the enthusiasm of a kid," read the caption.
But for all the talk of his roots, it is performances that will win over the supporters. Simeone cannot afford to be sentimental, with Atletico already seven points behind Barcelona in La Liga and chasing a Champions League final inside their own Wanda Metropolitano. Juventus have a 2-0 deficit to make up in Turin.
For Morata too, feeling at home is likely less about the past and more about the present, a fresh start and the chance to feel wanted again.
"Sometimes you take a lot of turns and I needed a group like this, a coach and a team that trust me," Morata said. "I'm finally here."
© 2019 AFP