Why Del Bosque has rewarded Real Madrid cast-offs with call-ups for struggling Spain
With a number of big-name players underperforming for Spain, the attacking choices were perhaps Vicente del Bosque’s most difficult decisions as he named his latest squad. Fernando Torres has yet to display any sign of improvement at Milan, Diego Costa’s injury status appears unclear before almost every Chelsea game, and Fernando Llorente has laboured in front of goal this season.
While the latter pair both netted at the weekend, the Spain coach had already opted to look elsewhere, naming two in-form Serie A stars for La Roja’s upcoming matches.
Tests against Belarus and Germany await, and Del Bosque has placed his faith in a duo that have looked hugely impressive already this term. José Callejón and Álvaro Morata have netted 12 league goals between them already, each establishing their importance at two of Italy's biggest sides.
While the former proved last year that he was essential to Napoli’s attacking play, the latter recently supplanted Llorente in Massimiliano Allegri’s first-choice XI at Juventus.
The 22-year-old has looked much more incisive than his compatriot, bringing his direct style and impressive pace to a side lacking both over the past few weeks. Alongside Carlos Tévez, Morata has shone and his Spain call-up is undoubtedly deserved, after Sunday’s brace against Parma doubled his tally for the season.
He has been deadly in front of goal, managing a shooting accuracy of 75% while scoring his four goals in just 211 minutes, the lowest total among Serie A players to match that tally.
Pablo Osvaldo sits second on 446 minutes of action, highlighting the effectiveness of Morata when called upon by the Bianconeri. Morata, having netted eight goals for Real Madrid last term from even fewer minutes, has proven that Juve’s decision to invest €20 million in bringing him to Turin was a wise move.
The reigning European champions also managed to insert a buy-back clause, which they are able to activate in the summer of 2016 or 2017 should they wish. That will allow them to re-sign a home-grown player passed over in favour of the stars currently at the Santiago Bernabéu.
But even the most ardent Juventus supporter would be hard pressed to argue a case for him earning similar playing time in Madrid, given the sheer quality of Real's attacking talent. His fate was similar to the one suffered by Ángel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and many others; excellent players simply squeezed out in the constant pursuit of the latest Galáctico.
No way, Jose
Callejón is a shining example of that policy, a player clearly beloved by Jose Mourinho during his time in the Spanish capital yet sold to Napoli for just €10 million in July 2013.
Yet even in moving to the Stadio San Paolo he was an unfashionable choice, with Rafael Benitez pushing his name despite the club’s desire to sign Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Saint-Étienne instead.
The former Liverpool boss can feel vindicated, with Callejón weighing in with a career-high 15 goals and adding six assists for good measure. It was no surprise to see rumours of interest from Chelsea as Mourinho looked to bring him to England, but the player opted to remain faithful to Napoli and has continued his good form this term.
He is currently the joint-leading scorer in Serie A, his return of eight goals in the opening 10 games helping Napoli keep pace with the front-runners as they sit in third place. After a start which saw them win just one of their first four matches, the Partenopei have since recorded five victories and two draws, their form owed in no small part to the stellar play of the man who inherited Edinson Cavani’s No.7 shirt.
“Since I've been at Napoli, I've had the chance to play consistently,” the 27-year-old said recently. “I wanted that, have gained experience and I've been able to mature. This call-up is thanks to Rafa Benitez and Napoli. I must thank them for this honour of being able to represent my country.”
Where last term he played on the left and through the middle, Callejón has been fielded exclusively on the right of the attacking trident in Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 formation, although he is hardly an orthodox winger.
Unlike many in that role, he rarely attempts to dribble past players and has been successful with just four of his 12 attempts this term. Callejón beats opponents with both his passing – creating 22 clear scoring opportunities for his team-mates thus far – and his intelligent movement off the ball.
“He’s an important player for us because he has different movement from all the others,” Benítez explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport. That attribute has been responsible for many of his goals this term.
Seeing Napoli break open a game after a superb run between defenders has become an increasingly frequent facet to their success, and opponents have simply been unable to track the former Espanyol star closely enough. Once he gets the ball, his finishing has been excellent; calm enough to slot home when faced with an onrushing goalkeeper or under pressure from a defender.
Carry on tackling
It won't have been just his attacking prowess that caught the eye of Del Bosque, however, with his off-the-ball intelligence often put to use in helping Napoli win back possession.
Averaging 1.3 tackles, 0.6 interceptions and 0.7 clearances per game, Callejón is both competent and willing enough to help protect the defence. That work ethic is essential for both club and country, as the two coaches demand contributions in both phases from their players.
The sheer depth of quality available to Del Bosque has prevented the Napoli star from earning a call-up before last week, but it seems Spain can no longer overlook his abilities.
He confessed that finding his name on the squad list is “right up there as one of the happiest moments of my life”, and it is clearly deserved. Morata’s promising talent could well see him become essential to the future of the national side, but Callejón has all the tools to be vital here and now.