Spain: Chelsea's Alvaro Morata faces fight for World Cup place

(Photo credit: Brian Minkoff)

Few players will have enjoyed the last few days of international fixtures less than Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata. The 25-year-old’s career with the Spanish national side had been beginning to blossom, 12 of his 13 international goals had arrived in an 18-month spell and he had appeared to be cementing his place as Julen Lopetegui’s preferred striker.

Such a spot would always be under intense scrutiny. After all, Diego Costa was always set to return to the fold as soon as he resumed regular first-team football at Atletico Madrid, while the form of a series of strikers in La Liga has made the competition for places all the more intense.

The Spanish national side only play with one striker and will likely include three frontmen in their 23-man squad. 

On Friday, Valencia striker Rodrigo made the most of his start by netting against Germany. He was replaced by Diego Costa on Tuesday and the Brazilian-born striker opened the scoring before his replacement, Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas, also netted.

The beast bites back

In missing the first half of the season, Diego Costa's place on the plane to Russia was in doubt. The 29-year-old was made to wait until Atletico Madrid's transfer ban was lifted in January, with Morata replacing him as Chelsea's marksman goalscorer.

Six goals in 14 games on his return to Atletico were deemed enough for a Spanish recall under Lopetegui, as Morata's form turned south at Stamford Bridge. A typical Costa hustle-and-bustle performance was rewarded with a scrappy opening goal against Spain, and his style of play makes him Spain's first choice focal point.

Costa can run in behind, hold the play up, bully defenders, can score with both feet as well as in the air head and can strike from distance; a defender's nightmare when on-song. Costa and Morata are similar in terms in being all-round strikers, making it likely that is one or the other when it comes to a World Cup place.

A bolt from The Bats

Striker Rodrigo showed some promise during his time at Benfica, scoring 45 goals over three seasons, earning him an international call-up in 2014. He subsequently moved to Valencia, and his performances dwindled as the club had a relegation battle on their hands, going through six managers in the space of two seasons.

Rodrigo, 27, has found his form under new Valencia manager Marcelino this season. The Rio-born forward has found the net 16 times for Los Murcielagos as they look set to finish in the Champions League places. 

Rodrigo is not a traditional striker and is able to play on both wings as as a number 10 as well on up front. Holding great pace and quick feet, the left-footed forward likes to pick the ball up deep and link-up with his midfielders before springing into the box.

The speed of the striker will come in handy to get in behind defences, like he did last week against Germany, receiving Andres Iniesta's through ball. With Iniesta just one of many architects in this Spain side, Rodrigo's legs are a great option for La Roja. 

The Celtic warrior

Liverpool fans will not remember Iago Aspas fondly as he scored one goal in just 15 games for the Anfield club. Aspas, now 30, returned to former club Celta Vigo and picked up from where he left off in Galicia.

In less than three seasons back at Los Celticos, the forward has scored an impressive 63 goals, making him the most prolific of Spain's strike options. 

Like Rodrigo, he is left footed and can operate in a number of attacking positions, but it his is dribbling that it his greatest asset. 

Aspas can shift the ball past defenders with ease, but perhaps his similarity to Rodrigo could prevent both travelling to the World Cup,

More needed from Morata

Morata has been excluded from the squad entirely following a goal drought at Chelsea which lasted 13 matches. He finally ended his barren run with an FA Cup strike at Leicester before the international break but last year's £60 million arrival has been out of sorts and is lacking confidence.

He had enjoyed a strong start to life at the English champions with 12 goals in his first 25 appearances and had appeared to fit seamlessly into Antonio Conte’s system. Yet a lack of conviction in front of goal clearly began to play on his mind while the death of a close friend back in Spain would not have helped his psychological state.

In recent weeks, Olivier Giroud has been preferred to Morata up front at Chelsea, and unless the situation dramatically changes in the coming weeks, the Spaniard may be looking at booking a vacation this summer.

All is not loss for the former Real Madrid man, however. That goal against Leicester would have got the monkey off his back, and two weeks without football allows him to get his previous injury problems behind him, missing four matches due to a back problem and starting just three games since the start of February.

Morata, 25, may be similar to Diego Costa in some ways, but he is a greater team player than the snarling Atletico man. Morata is superior with the ball at his feet and would be more inclined to find the Spanish midfield runners of Isco, Marco Asensio and David Silva.

Coach Lopetegui should be encouraged by the partnership Morata had with Eden Hazard earlier in the season, becoming so strong that Chelsea manager Antonio Conte opted for a 5-3-2 system for a period to get the pair playing closer to one another.

Outside looking in

It is now hard to see a clear way back for the Morata into Lopetegui’s plans now that Spain have played their final friendly before their squad is announced in May.  A strong run of form at club level is the bare minimum that the Madrid-native requires and even that may not be enough.

Lopetegui would not be drawn into questions that he may opt to bring four strikers to Russia, and with Rodrigo and Aspas capable of playing out wide it is not out the question. Conte’s decision to sell Costa last summer may be beginning to infuriate some Chelsea fans due to his current form and track record of success. 

An FA Cup and Champions League football are still up for grabs for Chelsea, and if Morata can fire the Blues to a cup win and into the Premier League top four, he may have to put his holiday plans on hold.

Will Morata head to the World Cup this summer? Let us know in the comments section below.

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