Alvaro Morata almost scored with his first touch on his debut for Real Madrid.
Jose Mourinho was manager of Real Madrid at the time. It was December 2010, and the club was locked in a battle for La Liga with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona.
Mourinho threw on Morata—a tall, strong centre-forward from the youth academy—in the 89th minute against Real Zaragoza at their stadium, La Romareda. Morata was only 18 years old. He had it all.
"My abiding memory of Morata was his conditioning," Roberto Rojas—who played with Real Madrid's first team in the late 1990s and later coached at La Fabrica, the club's youth academy, for six years—told Bleacher Report.
"He had such an impressive physique. He was big, very powerful and very fast. Technically, he was a good player, too—good in the air, could play with both feet. He scored goals. He was a complete player in spite of his height, about 1.90 metres tall. He had everything."
A minute after his introduction against Real Zaragoza, Morata broke free of the defence, but his shot on goal was parried at the last second by Zaragoza's advancing goalkeeper. Morata nearly scored. It could well be the story of his career—football's nearly man.
Real Madrid won the match, 3-1. Gabi—who was playing at Real Zaragoza in between the two spells that made him an icon at Atletico Madrid—scored Real Zaragoza's consolation goal.
After the match, as tears streamed down his cheeks, Morata presented his Real Madrid jersey to his father, Alfonso Morata, who said afterwards on Cadena SER, the radio network where he worked as a director: "I would not sell [the shirt] for €20 million."
Real Madrid did, however, sell his son for €20 million a few seasons later to Juventus (with a buy-back option).
Morata had impressed in the minutes he was given at Real Madrid and came on as a substitute in the victorious 2014 UEFA Champions League final, but he could never get ahead of Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema in the queue for the club's No 9 position. In the same year he won his first cap for Spain, he was moved on to Turin.
During his first season at Juventus, he flourished, managing to nudge Fernando Llorente out of the starting XI. Morata scored several important goals in the 2014-2015 UEFA Champions League knockout stages, as well as one against Barcelona in the final as Juve came up just short in a thrilling campaign. Great things were expected in his second season with Juve, but he never kicked on.
"Morata seemed to annoy [Juventus manager] Massimiliano Allegri rather than convince him that he should be a regular starter," Adam Digby, author of Juventus: A History in Black and White, told B/R. "Ultimately his second season was very disappointing, but because of the promise shown in his first season, everyone was really disappointed that Juve didn't hang on to him."
Morata's two closest friends at the club—Simone Zaza, who was fourth-choice striker at Juventus, and Llorente—came and went.
"Zaza and Morata were two single guys, both living in Turin," says Digby. "They stuck up a really good friendship, hanging out on days off, shopping together, messing around at training together. There's a video of them doing ridiculous slides in the mud one day when it was pouring rain in training. Perhaps that played into Morata's [mindset]—he wasn't one of the kids messing around on the training ground anymore. He was the club's first-choice No 9. A lot more was expected of him and he didn't do it.
"Maybe not having Llorente, too—who picked Morata up at the airport and did things like taking him to the dentist because he didn't know the Italian words for 'toothache' and so on—meant Morata was taken out of his comfort zone. He's a sensitive guy and a really quiet and shy kid as well."
During his time at Juventus, Morata struck up a relationship with the club's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Morata looked to Buffon as a mentor.
Buffon took Morata aside one day after witnessing Morata crying to their physio because he was sad, as noted by Sid Lowe in the Guardian.
"Afterwards [Buffon] took me aside, alone, and said that if I wanted to cry, do it at home," Morata said. "He said the people who wished me ill would be happy to see that and the people who wished me well would be saddened by it."
Morata returned to Real Madrid in the summer of 2016 and again scored decisive goals for the club as Real Madrid won their first league title in five years (as well as another UEFA Champions League crown).
He was then sold to Chelsea at the end of the 2016-17 season for a club-record fee of €80 million, which represented a profitable piece of business for Real Madrid—like Jese, who went to Paris Saint-Germain for a reported fee of €25 million a year earlier—on one of their academy graduates.
"Morata has a very good reputation at Real Madrid," Joaquin Maroto, a journalist with Diario AS who has been covering Spain's national team for 30 years, told B/R. "At the club, he had the same problem that a lot of players have who come from the academy—often they go on to play as internationals, but at Real Madrid, they are reserves.
"Players like Juan Mata, who is at Manchester United now. He was a player at La Fabrica but he played with Spain at the [Santiago] Bernabeu before ever playing with Real Madrid at the stadium. Alvaro Negredo is another. What happened to Morata is happening now to Isco, who is a starter for the Spain national team and a sub for Real Madrid. For a young guy like Morata, it was difficult."
Gabriele Marcotti, ESPN senior writer and a Times columnist, concurs. Morata faced a trying time at the club that nurtured him. Even though Morata scored 15 goals in 14 starts during Real Madrid's 2016-2017 league-winning campaign, he could never expect to supplant the club's front three—Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo—as a starter.
"Morata's trajectory above all says a lot about Madrid," says Marcotti. "Here you have a guy who has come through the ranks, who is very much steeped in the club. He breaks into the team when they have won La Decima [the club's tenth European Cup]. There's a very expensive, very entrenched frontline of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano. In 10, 20 years, we'll look back on this Real Madrid era and that front three and how they were really untouchable. For them to get dropped from the lineup they had to basically get hurt.
"Morata is faced with the dilemma: 'OK, I'm here. I'm young. I'm promising. Do I stick around and try to impose myself knowing that in the front three are two of the most expensive players of all time and a guy in Karim Benzema who has been there forever and who is very much the president's man, who is very popular with Florentino Perez?'
"From the club's perspective, they send him to Italy, telling him, 'Do well and you'll come back.' He goes to Italy, does well. He grows. He comes back. He scores a ton of goals off the bench, but the club makes it obvious to him that Bale, Benzema and Cristiano are mainstays, and, 'Sometimes we'll play with Isco in the front three, so off you go to Chelsea.'"
After initially impressing at Chelsea, which included an early season hat-trick against Stoke City, Morata's performances have tapered off.
According to Cope (h/t the Express), he's been lined up to go on loan. He has only just turned 26 years old, but his career is drifting.
Digby makes the point that Morata has trouble assuming the mantle of being the boss. A player like Ronaldo, for example, grows with the responsibility of being a team's franchise player; it seems that Morata wilts in the role.
"Morata can be devastating in spells," says Digby. "He can surprise people when little is expected of him. Once the expectation is there, it really shows. We saw that with his second season at Juve. Then he went back to Real Madrid in 2016 and he was quite good again. He obviously convinced Chelsea to invest heavily in him, and he's failed to live up to that, too.
"That weight of expectation of being the main man in attack has plagued him ever since. He was fine being the back-up to Llorente at Juve. He was fine being the back-up to Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. When he was made first-choice at Juve and again when he was the main man at Chelsea when they spent all that money on him, he's struggled to live up to the hype. I guess that's kind of who he is."
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