With their title hopes hanging by a thread, Juventus turned once more to their Iberian saviour. You know the one: tall, dark hair, a repeat Champions League winner from his time at Real Madrid. A forward who has lifted silverware in Spain, Italy and England and who bangs in the goals for his country at a rate of one in every other game.
He had rescued them once already last week, coming off the bench to break a second-half stalemate at Spezia. On Saturday, he delivered a more remarkable rescue: setting up a goal then scoring two of his own to reverse a 1-0 deficit against top-four rivals Lazio. In the dugout, even Cristiano Ronaldo looked impressed.
Wait, you didn’t think we were talking about Him, did you? The man rescuing Juventus this week cost only €10m, not €100m. Even in a difficult season, heading towards an uncertain conclusion, Álvaro Morata continues to look like a bargain.
He is Serie A’s joint-leading provider of assists, with eight, and has scored seven times despite making only 15 starts. Even those numbers are the tip of the iceberg. Morata struck six times in the Champions League group stage, not including the hat-trick he had disallowed during the home defeat by Barcelona. That was hardly the only time he got scuppered by a replay official.
The Spaniard’s knack for finding himself on the wrong side of marginal decisions became so persistent at one point that fans in Italy rechristened him as Ál(VAR)o Morata. In November, he told El Partidazo de Cope that his tally of disallowed goals was up to 13 for the year. One week later, he had another chalked off during a Nations League game against Germany.
Through all the frustrations, he persisted. Morata was determined to make a success of this second stay in Turin; not that anyone viewed his previous stop, between 2014 and 2016, as a failure. To the contrary, it was his success that made it impossible for him to stay back then: compelling Madrid to take up their buy-back option. The price was fixed, and his value had soared during two seasons in which he helped take Juventus to a Champions League final.
This club have always looked like a happy fit for Morata, off the pitch as well as on it. He met his wife, Alice Campello, during his first stay at Juventus and spoke in starry-eyed terms of how at home he was made to feel by veteran players in the changing room, drawing a contrast to what he perceived as a stricter hierarchy in Madrid. He scored 27 times in two seasons: hardly an overwhelming figure, yet so many of those seemed to come in the biggest games.
Although Morata would enjoy some positive moments in his subsequent stays at Chelsea and Atlético Madrid, they always came interwoven with too many missed opportunities. The opportunity to return to Juventus this summer thrilled him, even if it did look from the outside as though he had been their fall-back option, after failed pursuits of Luis Suárez and Edin Dzeko.
Those three forwards could hardly be less alike in their footballing nature, raising questions about the club’s scattershot recruitment. But if this was an accident of fate, it is turning out to be a very happy one.
When Ronaldo missed time with a coronavirus infection early in this campaign, it was Morata who filled the void, scoring or setting up every goal his team managed during his teammate’s absence. On other occasions, they have dovetailed together, the Spaniard setting up the Portuguese’s opener in a win over Roma this January.
Never have Morata’s contributions weighed heavier, though, than in this past week. Juventus looked like a team ready to give in to their own frustrations against Spezia on Tuesday, unable to break down dogged opponents for more than an hour until he came off the bench and scored within a minute. Juventus romped from there to a 3-0 win.
The situation against Lazio was more dire. Joaquín Correa had punctured Juventus in the 14th minute, and the champions looked close to a nervous implosion after being denied what looked like an obvious penalty for handball by Wesley Hoedt. Alex Sandro was fortunate to escape without a red card soon afterwards, when he swung his forearm into the back of Correa’s head.
Morata changed the complexion of the game when he released Adrien Rabiot into the box just before half-time. The Frenchman’s near-post finish was ferocious, but only possible because his teammate had isolated Hoedt before threading a pass between him and Adam Marusic.
It was a goal that spoke to the versatility of Morata’s performance. His greatest strength as a striker has always been what Italians like to call profondità, an ability to find and exploit spaces behind a defence. Most often, he likes to attack those spaces himself but at Juventus this season Andrea Pirlo has often required him to take up deeper positions and serve others.
There is room, though, to do both. Juventus’s second goal felt more like classic Morata, accelerating away from defenders and beating the keeper at the end of a counter to a Lazio counter. The third came from the penalty spot, after Aaron Ramsey was felled.
Ronaldo did not even enter the game until the scoring was finished at 3-1. A more positive outing for Juventus is hard to imagine as they prepare for the return leg against Porto. They remain seven points behind Inter at the top of Serie A but, with equal games played, there is at least a little pressure on the Nerazzuri now before their visit to Atalanta, who have scored 12 times in four games.
Morata was hardly the only Juventus player to impress on Saturday. Federico Chiesa, ever more the symbol of this team and their future, was magnificent, sending Lazio’s defence into disarray with dribbles that combined furious force with spellbinding close control. Danilo excelled in an unfamiliar role as a holding midfielder.
Still, the Spaniard’s contribution felt even more compelling when you consider his recent health struggles. Morata has been diagnosed with cytomegalovirus, a lifelong infection that typically shows no symptoms but can cause flare-ups and reportedly caused him a serious bout of faintness at the end of Juventus’s first-leg defeat to Porto.
Juventus 3-1 Lazio, Udinese 2-0 Sassuolo, Spezia 1-1 Benevento, Napoli 3-1 Bologna, Sampdoria 2-2 Cagliari, Verona 0-2 Milan, Fiorentina 3-3 Parma, Crotone 4-2 Torino, Roma 1-0 Genoa.
Pirlo has been reintroducing Morata slowly since and this was the first game he had started. “These have been three difficult weeks,” said the player at full time. “I felt like I had lost all my strength in training and in matches. But now I’m recovering, I feel better.”
Is there time yet for Juventus to do likewise in a season that seemed to be slipping away from them? Their situation remains precarious, both at home and in Europe, but a comeback win over a team as good as Lazio was a welcome shot in the arm.