There is only so much someone can really do in just seven minutes. You cannot cook an adequate meal, cannot complete many household tasks sufficiently, and cannot expect much in the way of true progress. Leaving aside suggestions that should not be aired pre-watershed, limited time means limited options.
But you can change the course of a football match, and that was surely what Antonio Conte had in mind when bringing Alvaro Morata on against Barcelona on Tuesday. With the last-16 tie finely-poised at 1-1, and Chelsea having played excellently against their more illustrious opponents, there was one final chance to claim a first-leg advantage.
The Italian has spent much of this season complaining about Chelsea’s transfer activity and, thus, a perceived lack of squad depth. Yet when he perused his bench at Stamford Bridge, he would have seen players capable of making a difference. Olivier Giroud might have anticipated a physical battle with a tiring Gerard Pique and Samuel Umiti, and Danny Drinkwater would have relished the chance to prove that he too could endlessly recycle possession to no avail. But it was Morata who received the call.
In seven minutes, the striker had three touches. One was a successful pass, one was a failed dribble, and one was a handball in his own half. But it was his needless booking for dissent which was the most frustrating. Victor Moses skewed a shot wide, Chelsea players, adamant it had been deflected, called for a corner, but referee Cüneyt Çakır awarded a goal kick.
Morata was not the only Chelsea player to protest the decision, but he was the most animated, throwing his arms in the air at this supposed injustice and racing towards the official. The yellow card was deserved.
Conte would have been forgiven for launching his own tirade at the Spaniard there and then. It was only last month that the manager warned Morata to “learn control” after he was sent off against Norwich in the FA Cup. “I agree with the player for the first yellow card, but I don’t agree with the player for the second yellow card. He has to check himself in future,” he said, having seen his club-record signing dismissed for arguing the award of a first yellow card, thereby instantly earning a second.
“He has to overcome this problem because this is a stupid problem,” Conte added. “You have to work for the team and not lose confidence. But this is the first time Morata has faced this situation. Before, if you stay on the bench, you don’t have this type of pressure. So now he has to learn to face this type of situation, move forward and go on.”
It has been a season of difficult lessons for Morata. He scored seven goals in his first eight games, but just five in 26 thereafter. He has struggled with injuries, and has also had to deal with the death of his close friend in a car accident last month. Morata was born and bred in Madrid, and the very human troubles footballers face when leaving their home city and moving hundreds or even thousands of miles abroad are often overlooked. Foreign players are often mocked for deriding the weather, the food or the culture in England, yet it is a considerable change, a massive burden to place on anyone’s shoulders.
To that effect, there is sympathy for Morata. But he does not help himself with acts of petulance in Chelsea’s time of need. In the case of dissent, once is a mistake, twice is a coincidence, and three is a costly pattern that the Blues cannot afford to rely on.
More worrying still for the Spaniard is Chelsea’s performance without him. Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro dovetailed wonderfully against Barca, and Conte’s decision to use a false nine instead of a central striker was vindicated. The manager will have taken note of its success.
For Morata, the challenge is two-fold: to prove he is worthy of a place in this team with his performances, but also with his attitude. After all, you can do just as much to damage your reputation in seven minutes as you can to enhance it.