Embraced by Atlético and Spain, Morata is better than ever

Simeone praises 'sensational' Morata after Madrid derby win (1:03)

Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone speaks after his side's 3-1 win over rivals Real Madrid in LaLiga. (1:03)

On Monday morning in Spain, Álvaro Morata got up early -- much earlier than his aching body wanted to -- and drove his kids to school. He did so because twins Alessandro and Leonardo demanded that they should be able to parade him, earn big bragging rights.

After all, "Dad" had scored two cracking headers on Sunday night against Real Madrid, his former team, to ensure that LaLiga-leading Los Blancos were thrashed 3-1 and Atlético Madrid won only their second derbi in their last 15 attempts.

So the twins -- who, like all Atléti supporters, had suffered a humiliating week after Los Rojiblancos produced what coach Diego Simeone admitted was "the worst performance in my time in charge" in the 3-0 defeat at Valencia, then conceding a late equaliser (to Lazio's goalkeeper!) in midweek -- wanted to be able to strut a bit. They wanted to have the last laugh.

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Whether the brothers have any real idea how close they came to waking up a 9½-hour flight away in the Saudi Arabian city of Buraidah, home of the largest camel market in the world, I can't tell you. Buraidah is also home to Al Taawoun, who had their eyes on signing Morata several months ago.

Let me take you back to June 14, and the Steakhouse El Gaucho on Walstraat in Enschede, Netherlands. I was in an enjoyable group of four people eating dinner there, two of whom are close to the 30-year-old striker. One of them shared how, earlier that day, Morata had brought an offer from Al Taawoun to show him -- and to share an agonising dilemma. The proposal was a three-year deal worth over €42 million -- per season. Even for a wealthy man who'd just signed a contract extension with Atlético, this was breathtaking wealth -- the kind of largesse about which footballers usually say will secure the future not only for their kids, but their future grandchildren, too.

The dilemma? Morata was gleefully happy that Simeone had promised to give him more responsibility at Atléti, playing him more regularly, and this man, who's not far from becoming his country's fourth top scorer, had just been made a senior part of Spain's captaincy group. Atléti had just "won" the second half of the season (leaving Barcelona five and Madrid 10 points behind, respectively, over the second 18 matches of the season), and we were all in the Netherlands that week to watch Morata and Spain win the UEFA Nations League, beating Italy and Croatia.

Life was sweet.

Across Morata's city of birth, Madrid's all-time second top scorer and genius footballer, Karim Benzema, had already accepted a move to the Saudi Pro League's Al Ittihad. There, Benzema would earn around five times what was on offer to Morata once salary and commercial benefits were combined.

The briefing I was given, the night before Spain beat Italy 2-1 in that semifinal and the hero of this story put one over on his old Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci, was that money might not be enough to sway Morata. Tempting though the deal was, he had direct and clear ambitions where he was: he thought a title charge this season wasn't out of the question if Atléti performed well in the transfer market. He also said he believed that Spain, even prior to winning the Nations League, were in a tight group of teams capable of winning Euro 24 in Germany the following summer.

It wasn't irrelevant that he and wife Alice Campello had just had their fourth child, a daughter, in January. Uprooting their lives again, after long spells in both London and Turin, had been far from what they had planned.

The tipping point came a little later that summer when Simeone declared how he felt about his No. 9.

"Morata is a hugely important player for us, a brilliant penalty box striker," said the Atletico manager. "We have nobody else like him. Álvaro can play beyond the opposition back line, he stretches how we play vertically, makes games more open. He's also a great header of the ball. Height like that is also a great asset.

"Álvaro's fundamental to our game and we hope he's going to stay. We'll definitely be helping him to get his goal average up. The team really needs him, but it's up to the club and Morata himself as to whether he stays or not."

Cut to this past -- seismic -- week for Atléti. That defeat at Valencia was cataclysmic, and while all football fans love the schadenfreude of seeing a keeper charge up the pitch in added-time desperation, the embarrassment of being on the receiving end of Ivan Provedel heading home an equaliser for Lazio in Rome -- when the clock was already 35 seconds over the prescribed four minutes of stoppages -- was definitely not what Atléti's already damaged pride needed.

So for Morata, the man who turned down more than €160m in order to pursue glory for club and country, to hit a hat trick for Spain in their 7-1 win in Georgia earlier this month, topping that with superbly headed goals against Madrid three minutes after the first whistle and less than one minute after the second-half restart, is pretty magnificent.

After the match, he grinned.

"All the kids who support Atléti can be happy and proud tomorrow," he told LaLigaTV. "They can wear their strips and their scarves again. When my own kids wake up, I know they'll demand I take them to school, so I want to finish with all the interviews and get home to bed because I'll be up too early! As for how I feel, it's not just in football but in life, generally, you need to feel there's faith in you. Right now I feel more important at Atléti than in previous seasons."

How Madrid could do with him back in Blanco now.

Benzema's departure had to come sooner or later, but it was always going to be crucial how it was managed. Six wins in seven matches this season might not hint at any kind of road bump for Real since the departure of a man who contributed nearly 100 goals and assists in the past two seasons alone, but Madrid lost the derbi having previously won their past four games by a single goal -- a couple of which came after the 94th minute. They've scored 12 times in all competitions, compared to 20 and 22 in each of the previous two seasons at the identical stage. That's a pretty drastic drop-off.

We can now confirm a three-way title chase in LaLiga, with Atléti declaring some pretty hostile intentions. Spain face vital qualifiers in the next couple of weeks, which can confirm their status as potential European Championship winners. And Morata is taking his kids to school in Madrid, not Buraidah.

All in all, these are deservedly happy days for Atlético's No. 19.