Alvaro Morata: The New Shining Star at Real Madrid
Saturday's bout between Real Madrid and Barcelona—the 166th league meeting between the two fierce rivals—was one of the most meaningless El Clasico games in years.
With Barcelona holding an unassailable lead in La Liga, only bragging rights and Jose Mourinho's wavering reputation were on the line at the Bernabeu.
Having suffered high-profile defeats to Milan in Europe and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona probably wanted this game over and done with, with the minimum of fuss. The (unusually early) 4 p.m. CET kick-off time, meanwhile, was designed to give Los Blancos the maximum possible recovery time for their crucial Round of 16 second leg at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
The insignificance of this match and the corresponding gravity of the trip to Manchester was reflected in Mourinho's line-up: Ronaldo, Khedira, Higuain and Ozil all started on the bench.
As the final scoreline suggests, the gamble of fielding a weaker side paid off for the home team. But more significantly, it gave a chance for a few of the squad's underused players to get some minutes in a high-profile La Liga tie.
Kaka dusted off his boots for his fifth league appearance of the season, while 20-year-old forward Alvaro Morata was given his second-ever start for the first team.
Starting upfront with the aforementioned Kaka and Karim Benzema, the youngster played a terrific match. It only took until the sixth minute for the towering 6'3" forward to charge down the left and pick up Benzema at the far post to slot home the opening goal.
Later on, he found the side netting and had several more decent chances to score the winner before Sergio Ramos headed home in the 82nd minute.
After playing three seasons in the youth teams of Atletico Madrid and nearby Getafe, the Madrid-born striker joined Los Blancos' Juvenil A in 2008.
His coach Sergio Piña immediately drew comparisons with Fernando Morientes (via El Pais, source in Spanish) for his style and aerial prowess, but claimed he was even better with his feet.
After winning the youth title and scoring an impressive 34 goals in the 2009-10 campaign (via Marca, source in Spanish) while sporadically appearing for Real Madrid' C team, he graduated to the B Team—Real Madrid Castilla—in 2010.
Even before kicking a ball for the Castilla in the Segunda Division, it was clear that Morata was on The Special One's radar, as he was invited on the first team's preseason tour of the USA.
Morata has bagged 37 goals in 76 matches for the Castilla side, but since Spanish players are allowed to switch between reserve and senior teams, coach Alberto Toril will now be seeing a lot less of his precocious talent.
This season, Morata has been called up to the senior side for six substitute appearances and two full outings.
With pace, brilliant movement and an eye for goal, his appearances have been successful with almost immediate effect. He scored his first La Liga goal in November as an 83rd-minute substitute at Levante after just 60 seconds on the pitch.
In his first full start against Rayo Vallecano last month, he took only three minutes to score the opener. When he set up the first goal on Sunday within six minutes, Jose Mourinho was probably unsurprised.
He has represented Spain at U17, U18 and U19 level, and if the "False 9"-loving senior team actually gives a fair crack of the whip to strikers, a full-blown international career beckons.
The stage is now set for Morata to break through into regular first-team football, and his talents may even take him away from the Bernabeu soon. A return to Atleti has already been suggested (as a potential future replacement for Falcao or Adrian), while some are also debating how he may be utilized in the Premier League.
As a club that traditionally sources its "Galactico" talents with a checkbook, it's great to see that the Madrid youth setup that brought us the likes of Jose Callejon and Alvaro Arbeloa is still producing world-class talent.
The future is bright, the future is Morata.
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