It was news that capped a miserable start to 2018 for Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata. The Spain squad was announced on Friday for the team’s friendly matches against Germany and Argentina this month, and Morata’s name was conspicuous by its absence. Not so long ago, he was considered the first-choice striker for one of the favorites for the World Cup in Russia. Now he might not even be at the tournament. Two days earlier, Chelsea played its biggest game of the season _ the second leg of its Champions League last-16 matchup against Barcelona on Wednesday _ and Morata was only on the bench, coming on for the final 23 minutes of a 3-0 loss at Camp Nou.
He has started as a substitute in each of Chelsea’s last three games, seemingly now behind January signing Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard in the pecking order of strikers at the club. The 25-year-old Morata has yet to score in 12 matches in 2018, with his last goal coming 14 matches ago on Dec. 26 in a win over Brighton. A summer move from Real Madrid to Chelsea for a club-record initial fee of 58 million pounds (now $80 million) was a supposed to be a defining one for Morata, making him the undisputed No. 1 striker at a top club for the first time.
Dropped by his club and now by his national team, it’s not quite turning out as planned. Doubts are resurfacing about his suitability to the rough-and-tumble nature of English soccer, considering he has never had a full season as a starting striker for any of his previous clubs, Real Madrid and Juventus. He has had a couple of periods out this season with a back injury and has appeared shorn of confidence in front of goal in recent months, notably against Arsenal in the Premier League in early January when he botched three gilt-edged chances in a 2-2 draw.
Morata has previously spoken in interviews of his mental fragility and frustration at not being given a real chance at club level to prove his worth. Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said the striker had “negative thoughts” in his final months of his time at the Italian team. They might have returned, given his goal drought this year.
“Maybe he could score on Sunday,” Chelsea coach Antonio Conte said on Friday, speaking ahead of his team’s FA Cup quarterfinal against Leicester. It was hardly convincing, and who knows if Morata will even be picked? Giroud, signed from Arsenal on the final day of the January transfer window, has been linking up well with Hazard and Willian in recent games. And the Leicester game shouldn’t be seen as just a chance for Conte to give some game time to his fringe players _ the FA Cup is Chelsea’s last opportunity for a trophy this season.
“We played Barcelona, but we’ve had a whole week to recover and rest,” Conte said. “For this reason, I’ll pick the best solution for Sunday’s game.” Spain coach Julen Lopetegui highlighted Morata’s “physical problems” in explaining why the striker had been left out.
“He remains in our thoughts and his chances of going to the World Cup remain intact,” Lopetegui said. “He will have an extraordinary end to his season and will have great numbers to make it to the World Cup.” Yet Lopetegui can count on Diego Costa, who was called up on Friday for the first time in more than nine months having been overlooked in that period because he couldn’t play with Atletico Madrid until the team’s transfer ban from FIFA ended in January.
There’s a certain irony on Costa’s return at the expense of Morata, seeing that Chelsea bought Morata as a replacement for Costa. Conte is unlikely to give up on Morata _ after all, he was a big driver in getting the player to Stamford Bridge and finally being able to work with him. In 2014 when Juventus coach, Conte set up the transfer of Morata to the Italian club from Madrid, only to resign a few days before the move was completed to take over as Italy coach.
Maybe Chelsea will see the best of Morata next season, his second in the Premier League. Yet that might be too late to salvage his World Cup place. And who knows, Conte might not be at Chelsea then.