For a player whose confidence and form in front of goal fluctuates wildly, Spain’s Alvaro Morata might just have his work cut out in and around the penalty area tonight.
In captain Giorgio Chiellini and partner Leonardo Bouncci, Italy manager Roberto Mancini believes he has the best centre back pairing in the world. And Morata, a former team-mate to both at Juventus, is all too aware of what he is up against.
Back in 2017 before a World Cup qualifier, Morata described playing – and training – against Chiellini as ‘like being put in a cage with a gorilla and you have to steal his food!’
Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini comes up against Spain’s Alvaro Morata again – just like at Euro 2016
The pair were team-mates at Juventus, with Morata shortly after saying competing against Chiellini as ‘like being put in a cage with a gorilla and you have to steal his food!’
He continued; ‘Who causes most problems for me? Chiellini… I think the few times I’ve managed to score against him it’s been in the area.
‘It’s impossible to win a duel with Chiellini if it’s one-on-one in the box or he’s holding you.’
Impossible, is it? That does not exactly bode well ahead of tonight’s clash in the last four of a major tournament.
The pair first came accustomed to one another in the summer of 2014, when Morata joined Juventus from Real Madrid.
At 22, it was in Turin where the Spaniard made the first serious leap of his career, scoring 15 goals in a season which saw Juve win Serie A and reach the final of the Champions League.
Competing against Chiellini and Bonucci in training was a fire of baptism for Morata. But, by all accounts, he performed admirably during his two-year stay in Italy.
Chiellini produced a man-of-the-match display when Italy beat Spain in Paris at Euro 2016
The talismanic Italian defender scored the opening goal in the last-16 victory at the last Euros
Fascinatingly, their first match-up against each other came just six days after Real bought him back, amid Euro 2016.
Spain were defending champions – gunning for a third straight Euros – but were outfought and out-battled by the Italians in Paris,
Chiellini in particular, got the better of Morata. Not only did he win nearly all the aerial battles at the Stade de France, but he kept the Spanish number nine so quiet that he was hauled off after 70 minutes, despite his team needing a goal.
It was also the talismanic Italy defender who scored the first goal of the contest, bundling home from close range to jubilant celebration.
In their meetings since, it hasn’t been quite so dominant one-way. Morata was a late substitute in the 2017 Champions League final triumph over Juve in Cardiff and was also a replacement when Atletico beat Juve in the first-leg of a last-16 clash two years later.
Yet Chiellini has tended to have the last laugh. In that tie, Juve famously roared back to win 3-0 at home – courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick – and progressed.
That night, Morata started but received little service. More pointedly, the pair actually clashed at one point, with a street-wise Chiellini dramatically falling to the ground after a shove from the Atletico man.
Morata and Chiellini clashed in a Champions League match in 2019, when Juve beat Atletico
Over two years on, it will be intriguing to see if Morata learnt anything from these previous encounters, against undoubtedly one of the world’s best defenders.
His form has picked up at this Euros – after a horrid start – primarily courtesy of a terrific finish in extra-time in the last-16 thriller against Croatia. Is it, finally, his time to shine against the formidable Italian backline?
Bonucci, speaking ahead of tonight’s match, is certainly aware of Morata’s strengths: ‘We have to be careful of Morata breaking at pace.’
But irrespective of the opposition, his solid familiarity with Chiellini could be a deciding factor tonight.
‘We know each other’s game inside out,’ he said. ‘And it comes naturally to us to work out how to share the workload, and both be leaders.’
Morata’s pace and guile against Chiellini and Bonucci’s power and ferociousness. Polar opposite styles come to a head at Wembley this evening.
Morata will have to be at his very best if he is going to get anything out of Chiellini tonight
Chiellini has formed a formidable partnership with Leonardo Bonucci for club and country
But as both chase some much-desired success with their national teams, with Morata 28 and Chiellini now 36, the Spain forward will have to be at his prolific-best to take the spotlight away from another Azzurri defensive masterclass, as we saw against Belgium.
Luis Enrique’s side have somewhat stuttered to the last-four, unlike their Italian counterparts who have won five from five, including knocking out the world’s No 1 ranked side.
The Spain’s coach patience and trust in Morata could prove dividends on the biggest stage. But if Morata allows Chiellini to dominate him – again – it just may well be the Italians taking their place in Sunday’s showpiece.