Morata's fitness, confidence issues have Chelsea searching for solutions
LONDON -- There were seven minutes left of Chelsea's Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Barcelona when Alvaro Morata trotted onto the pitch as a late replacement for Pedro.
Chelsea's £58 million club record signing did not do much of note during his brief cameo, but he was on the pitch at least, even if his fleeting appearances are becoming a theme for Antonio Conte's team.
Morata has had his injury problems in recent weeks, and he has also had to overcome the personal tragedy of the death of a close friend in a car accident last month, so it is not surprising that he is not at the peak of his powers. In what has been an up-and-down first season at Stamford Bridge following his summer move from Real Madrid, the early weeks of 2018 have offered little in terms of positivity for the 25-year-old forward, but perhaps his late arrival onto the Champions League stage against Barca will mark a turning point for the Spaniard.
Chelsea and Conte will hope that is the case, however, with the club's season now reaching a crucial stage. By emerging from this game with a 1-1 draw, Chelsea can at least look forward to next month's return leg with hopes of progression to the quarterfinals, but they really need Morata to be fit and firing in time for that game.
First, for obvious reasons: He is an international-class striker, one with Champions League pedigree built up from his time with Madrid and Juventus, and he is also a player crucial to Conte's game plan.
Without a fully fit Morata, Conte was forced to deploy Eden Hazard in the central striking role against Barcelona, with the Belgian asked to perform the job of a false nine. Hazard is neither a centre-forward nor a false nine, so the Chelsea No. 10 was virtually neutered by being asked to fill that position.
The quality he offers in his favoured role, floating in from the left side and picking holes in opposition defences, was denied to Chelsea because he was playing further forward as the focal point of Conte's team.
So a fit and a focused Morata would give Chelsea two things that they lacked in this game: a classic centre-forward and Hazard playing where he is best.
Prior to this game, Morata had not started any of Chelsea's past eight fixtures, stretching back to mid-January, but he has made three substitute appearances, so his match fitness should still be reasonable, if not 100 percent.
His goal drought extends to eight appearances -- nine if you include his run-out against Barcelona -- so his confidence is probably lower than his fitness. That would appear to be the case, considering Morata scored seven goals in his first nine games for Chelsea in August and September but only five in 25 appearances since.
Yet this was a Champions League knockout tie against Barcelona, a game on which Chelsea's season, and Conte's future, could hinge. So why not play him from the start?
His ongoing absence from the starting XI hints at Conte not fully trusting Morata to deliver.
Perhaps Conte doubts his ability to produce for 90 minutes, or maybe it is rooted in a concern that the player's self-belief has taken too much of a battering, but whatever the reason for Conte to name Morata to the bench, is it really enough for the Italian to play Hazard as a centre-forward and dilute his playmaker's best qualities?
Conte did have other options. He could have started with Olivier Giroud as the focal point of the team following the Frenchman's recent arrival from Arsenal, but he lacks the mobility of Hazard and Morata, so his selection on the bench was no surprise.
Chelsea are a team that needs a centre-forward, though. They are a club that has thrived with the likes of Didier Drogba or Diego Costa in the No. 9 position, and Morata was brought in to do the job performed so successfully by his predecessors.
He is not the same as Costa or Drogba, with Morata lacking the intensity and nuisance value of the pair of them, but he knows how to lead the line and hold up the ball for the likes of Hazard, Pedro and Willian to run onto. Morata can pose problems for Gerard Pique at the heart of Barcelona's defence, and he can also give Chelsea the option of playing a longer game with his height and presence.
But Morata needs to show Conte that he is ready, willing and able to do that job.
The team needs him back to his best, and so does Hazard, who looked to be forming a potent partnership with Morata in the 2-1 group-stage victory against Atletico Madrid in Spain earlier this season. But Chelsea have only three games between now and the return leg -- at Manchester United, Manchester City and at home to Crystal Palace -- so time is not on Morata's side.
Now is the moment for him to grasp the opportunity to stand up and be counted.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_