As homecomings go, it could scarcely be bettered. Two years and two days since his last game for Atletico Madrid, Alvaro Morata was back in his native city, back in an Atletico jersey and at the home of Getafe, the club where he spent his apprenticeship.
He was at the top of his game. Fifteen minutes in, Morata arrowed in a cool left-footed drive for the first goal of Monday’s 3-0 win. Before the hour, a rising, angled Morata shot gave Atletico their second.
By the close of match day one of La Liga, the much-travelled Spain forward, 29, stood at the top of the scoring charts. Robert Lewandowski, the glamour arrival at Barcelona, had not marked his league debut with a goal. Nor was Karim Benzema, lodestar of champions Real Madrid, off the mark.
“We hope Morata carries on with us,” said Diego Simeone, the Ateltico head coach, after a satisfactory start to a campaign in which the target is to again upset the expected order and, as Atletico did in 2014 and 2021, snatch the title ahead of neighbours Real and big-spending Barca.
“I want to be here and I’m thrilled to be here,” confirmed Morata after his dream return.
Those remarks were a response to the player’s peculiar status as target and catalyst in this summer’s open and fluid transfer market.
Morata is an asset Atletico’s bosses could have, and still might, cash in on. He is accustomed to that. In the last eight summers, Morata has moved six times, a restless cycle that has yielded many medals – Liga and Champions League prizes with Real Madrid, Serie A wins with Juventus, an FA Cup at Chelsea – leaving a lasting impression he is always deemed a desirable option at ambitious clubs but dispensable once a coach sets his sights on a upgrade who looks more of a 20-goals-a-season guarantee than Morata.
He spent his last two seasons at Juventus, loaned there from Atletico when Simeone lured Luis Suarez to the club. Morata was sold by Chelsea a summer earlier when the Londoners bought Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. Last January, Morata was required to shift from the central striking position at Juve when they splashed out on Dusan Vlahovic.
But clubs tend to keep asking Morata back. There have been two spells at Real Madrid, who he first joined as a teenager from Getafe, two at Juventus and now a second stint at Atletico, who have been fielding calls from Juve since the two-year €10m-a-season loan deal ended in June.
The Italians wanted to keep him, but balked at a further €35m fee to make the deal permanent.
There was contact, too, with Manchester United, whose urgent search for a tried-and-tested goalscorer becomes ever more complicated by their position – bottom, after two defeats – in the Premier League table.
Morata’s advisers paid close attention to United’s situation, knowing of possible interest and also because Cristiano Ronaldo was being discussed as a potential signing among senior executives at Atletico, where there would be little room for both players on the same wage bill.
Resistance from Atletico fans to Ronaldo, a former Real Madrid icon, tempered the interest. Besides, Morata’s pre-season form – he scored a hat-trick in a friendly against Juve – made a strong case that the firepower already at the club is formidable.
Atletico Madrid 1 Manchester United 0 - player ratings
Suarez has left, but Morata, Joao Felix, Antoine Griezmann and Angel Correa make a strong quartet.
That’s without mentioning Matheus Cunha, the Brazil international, towards whom United’s attention turned at the weekend.
He cost Atletico a shade under €30m from Hertha Berlin less than 12 months ago and the club would only listen to bids of over €45m to let him move on so quickly. They take the view that, although he had limited opportunities in the starting XI in his first season in Spain – eight times in la Liga – the best of Cunha, 23, is yet to come.
He should develop into a sharper penalty-box operator than his goalscoring record – 18 in three seasons across Bundesliga and Liga – suggests.
On Monday night, Cunha came off the Atletico bench with seven minutes left as a replacement for the homecoming hero Morata.
The clutch of Atletico fans at Getafe applauded. Morata, backed by Spain national coach Luis Enrique to lead the line at the World Cup in November, has not always been warmly embraced by Atletico loyalists, partly because of his past at Real Madrid, but for supporters who regard an association with the city’s other giant as a stain there have been bigger issues to protest against during this transfer window.
During pre-season, Simeone heard, from fans in the stands, loud objections against the idea of Ronaldo, 37, and Real Madrid’s all-time record goalscorer, making a late-career stop-off at Atletico, where he could fulfil his determined wish to play in this season’s Champions League.
United failed to qualify, and, in their current predicament, can hardly be optimistic of doing so before Ronaldo enters his 40th year.