MONTPELLIER: Alvaro Morata is joint top scorer at Euro 2016 but doesn’t care who hits the net if Spain beat a familiar Italy side to a coveted quarter-final place in their last 16 clash on Monday.
“I couldn’t care less about the top scorer’s chart if we lose,” Morata said after the defending champions’ shock 2-1 defeat to Croatia left them second in Group D and facing a nightmare draw as they bid to retain their title.
Against all hopes and expectations, Spain’s second-place finish means they now face what Morata, who has spent two seasons with Juventus, called a “tough” and “tactically perfect” Italy side in Paris.
Moreover, the winners of the tie on Monday could face Germany in the quarter-finals and hosts France in the last four.
“They’re undoubtedly one of the toughest teams we could have drawn,” said Morata, who will return to Real Madrid following the Euros after the Spanish giants triggered a buy-back clause in his contract with Juventus this week.
“Tactically, I think they’re perfect and we’ll have to put in a perfect performance of our own if we’re going to beat them.”
Unsurprisingly, Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque had been hoping for an easier path to the latter stages.
“We have time to analyse the next game (with Italy), but it wasn’t the route we had planned to take,” he said.
Yet, it is a game fans of ‘La Roja’, who beat Italy 4-0 to win their second successive European Championship crown in 2012, will be hoping inspires Morata.
He has played with 32-time Italian champions Juventus for the past two seasons, notably scoring the Old Lady’s only goal when they lost the 2015 Champions League final to Barcelona in Berlin.
And when he walks on to the Stade de France pitch, he will come face to face with the three-man colossal Juventus defence he encountered on a daily basis at their Vinovo training ground outside of Turin.
On paper, inside knowledge could help Morata and Spain get the better Italy’s ‘BBC’ of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, who have been formidably tight on their way to helping goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon keep clean sheets on his two appearances so far in France.
Golden Boot race
But at his first major finals, the 23-year-old Morata has already staked his claim to become one of the stars of the tournament.
After hitting a brace in a comprehensive 3-0 win over Turkey last week, he took just seven minutes to open the scoring for Spain against Croatia in Bordeaux.
He is now level with Real teammate Gareth Bale, who on Sunday netted his third goal of Wales’ campaign to become the first player since Czech striker Milan Baros in 2004 to score three times in the opening three games of the competition.
The joy of Morata’s early strike was only temporary — and showed that past meetings with rivals at club level can mean little when it’s country versus country.
Fiorentina striker Nikola Kalinic’s slick mid-air effort levelled the scores before the half-time interval.
After Croatia keeper Danijel Subasic saved Sergio Ramos’s spot-kick, Ivan Perisic hit a cracking winner three minutes from time as Croatia won to go top of Group D.
Morata has crossed paths and invariably won as part of a dominant Juventus side on his many previous meetings with Fiorentina striker Kalinic, and Perisic, who has been one of the stars of a stuttering Inter Milan side since he joined the Nerazzurri last year.
He will be hoping for better luck against old friends and new foes in Paris.
Whilst Spain were struggling in the sweltering Bordeaux conditions, Buffon and Chiellini enjoyed a night off to protect them from picking up a second yellow card as an under-strength Italy lost out 1-0 to Ireland in Lille.
Buffon and Chiellini have already snuffed out one former teammate in Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic during the Azzurri’s 1-0 win in Toulouse on Sunday. A similar strategy will surely be in place to take care of Morata.