When Atletico Madrid’s name was paired with that of Juventus in the Champions League last 16 draw back in December, a number of sub-plots were written almost immediately. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Madrid looked to be the main storyline, with the supporting act coming in the form of Mario Mandzukic renewing his tumultuous relationship with Diego Simeone. While those two factors made up the initial forward of this tale, the most interesting line is probably yet to be written.
Alvaro Morata spent the two most successful seasons of his inconsistent career in Turin in between spells with Real Madrid. The striker supplied five goals to Juventus’s run to the Champions League final during the 2014/15 campaign, including finishes in the semi-final and final. Both Morata and Mandzukic played during Atletico Madrid’s group-stage ties with Juventus that year, but for the opposing stripes that they wear now.
Mandzukic’s Atletico topped Group A during the first half of the season, leaving Juventus to face Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. Morata netted home and away against the German side as Maximiliano Allegri’s team prevailed over two legs. It was the reigning champions who lay in wait after Arturo Vidal’s penalty sunk Monaco in the quarters. Carlo Ancelotti’s men had seen off Atletico in the last eight thanks to Javier Hernandez’s late header.
Just nine minutes into the semi-final, Iker Casillas parried Carlos Tevez’s shot into the path of his former teammate and Morata slotted into an empty net. Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty back at the Santiago Bernabeu put Madrid in charge, only for their academy product to strike in the second half. Morata’s equaliser gave Juve something to defend and defend it they did. He popped up with the equaliser in the final too and, despite Barcelona’s eventual glory in Berlin, he could hold his head high.
Morata’s most impressive performances came on the continental stage again the following season, starting with the winner at the Etihad against Manchester City in the group stages. It was his lung-busting run that combined stamina and skill that set up Juan Cuadrado to give Juve the lead at the Allianz Arena in the last 16. Bayern bit back and eventually put an end to the Italian giants’ run in extra time. Mandzukic had arrived in Turin the previous summer after spending under 12 months in Spain. Some say his time at the Vicente Calderon was marked by a row with Simeone, with the manager claiming the Croatian ‘annoyed him easily’.
Mandzukic and Morata’s goals fired Juventus to a fifth straight Serie A title, while they defended their Coppa Italia crown in Rome against Milan thanks to Morata’s extra-time winner. After two years in Italy, the Spaniard was still not a regular starter in Allegri’s side. His playing time grew limited with the arrivals of Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala. And so, with the imminent signing of Gonzalo Higuain, Morata returned home and was on the winning side against Juventus in the 2017 Champions League final.
Morata never got started at Chelsea and is now back among Europe’s elite in the continent’s premier club competition. He goes up against former teammates once more at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday and will hope to be the headline-maker in this last 16 first leg. The opposition contains the small matter of a Ronaldo-Dybala strike-force and could see a certain former Atletico striker return from injury.