Morata stands tall above his abusers for moment of ultimate triumph

By Sports Desk June 28, 2021

When Dani Olmo's right-footed cross curled through the fervent Copenhagen evening, it only had one man's name on it.

The name of a striker who has plied his trade at the top of European football for the duration of his career, the name of a player chosen to lead the line for one of the continent's great footballing heavyweights.

But also the name of a 28-year-old man with a wife and a young family, whose struggles at Euro 2020 have provoked unforgivable threats from poisonous throats and wicked fingers.

"I would like people to put themselves in my shoes and think what it's like to get threats towards my family, people saying: 'I hope your children die'," Alvaro Morata told Cadena Cope this week, after scoring once but missing a catalogue of chances during the group stage.

"I've had to leave my phone outside my room. My wife and children have come to the stadium in Seville with Morata on the back of their shirts and people have been shouting at them. 

"It's complicated. I understand people booing me for missing chances but there's a limit."

Olmo, who himself slammed Morata's abusers for "going beyond" had put his team-mate in the spotlight once more. It was a perfect cross at odds with the frenzied, haywire nonsense that had gone before.

But then, that's Spain at major tournaments nowadays. It's complicated.

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Since winning Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of the 2010 World Cup, Spain were without a win in major tournament knockout games ahead of Monday's last-16 encounter with Croatia at Parken Stadium.

At the 2014 World Cup, they were dumped out at the group stage, at Euro 2016 they were comprehensively outplayed by Antonio Conte's Italy and the hosts bored them to a penalty shoot-out loss at Russia 2018.

But this time it would be different, right?

In Luis Enrique, they have a high-class coach with a point to prove. They put collective goalscoring demons behind them by shellacking Slovakia 5-0 and began against Croatia with authoritative dominance.

Pedri, the youngest player to start a European Championship knockout game at 18 years and 215 days, had everyone dancing to his tune. A stunning throughball released Koke, who should have scored. Morata, naturally, also should have scored but misjudged a header.

It seemed a matter of time before Spain scored with Pedri heavily involved. The Barcelona youngster pinging a 40-yard backpass beyond a haphazard attempt at control from goalkeeper Unai Simon – giving Croatia the lead before they had enjoyed either a shot or a touch inside the opposition penalty area – was not in anyone's script, however.

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Scripts, match reports and strands of hair have long since been ripped apart by the time Morata smoothly controlled Olmo's centre with his right foot.

It was time to make his impression upon a contest of clinical finishing and frazzled brains.

"The situation is so serious that it must be put in the hands of the police because it is a serious crime," Luis Enrique rightly said when addressing the media this week.

"Insulting Morata's relatives is a crime and I hope it is corrected outright."

In the sporting sense, he had seen his team fall victim to an improbable heist and needed the centre-forward he trusts above all others.

Around 50 minutes earlier, Morata could look on with satisfaction and leave the finishing to right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, who powered home Ferran Torres' 57th-minute cross.

The effervescent Pablo Sarabia equalised before half-time and Torres getting in on the act showed Spain have enough firepower to absorb Morata's more erratic moments and enjoy his slick, intelligent link play. He created two openings for team-mates and completed 84 per cent of his passes deep in Croatian territory.

Luka Modric, the old master so outplayed by Pedri, was goaded into penning the sting in the tail as he shuffled towards the Spain six-yard box to set up substitute Mislav Orsic.

Right then, it felt as if Luis Enrique might have erred in taking off Sarabia, Torres and Koke to rest their legs for the quarters, not to mention disrupting Aymeric Laporte and Eric Garcia's central defensive pairing by throwing on Pau Torres for the latter.

When Mario Pasalic converted Orsic's brilliant delivery from deep to spark unbridled bedlam, we had our answer.

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Morata's perfect first touch granted him time in a game where no one seemed to have any, despite an additional 30 minute being bolted on.

Orsic blazed over at the start of extra time with Spain rocking, while Andrej Kramaric drew a magnificent save from Simon when the score was 3-3.

In terms of redemptive moments, that was only the supporting act.

Where he has snatched at changes so often of late, Morata found time to breath and let the ball drop enough for him to drive his left boot brutally through.

It was in from the moment he connected. Olmo's fellow sub Mikel Oyarzabal concluded a 5-3 win, making Spain the first team to score five goals in consecutive European Championship matches.

That's an awful lot to celebrate for some who have mercilessly tormented their hero of the hour and his loved ones. They don't deserve Alvaro Morata, and the endurance and perseverance that mean one of this tournament's greatest ever games belongs to him.

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