Fernando Morientes: The Champions League specialist
Fernando Morientes Sánchez was one of the top goal scorers of his generation. A fast, hard-working player, who was brilliant in the air and a precise finisher of a chance, he was a striker many clubs in the world craved for.
Morientes was born in Extremadura, Spain. His father was a civil guard. Being the son of a civil guard instilled in him a great sense of discipline, something that helped him throughout his football career, in addition to other orders of life. At the age of four, Morientes moved to Toledo where he began his first kicks to the ball. At first his parents were not convinced of his decision to play football, as they always advised him not to distract from studies but eventually they allowed him to fulfil his dream.
Moro started playing football the amateur way, as a simple hobby. Using the equipments of grounds in the localities of Toledo, he caught the attention of Albacete scouts who offered him a chance to play. From there on, things took a serious turn. Albacete included him for their team in the lower categories. Lifestyle in Albacete was completely different and difficult from what he had endured but Morientes worked through it. His hardwork paid off as he successfully made it through the youth ranks at Albacete and grew more as a man in the world of football. Soon, he went on to make his debut for the first team. He debuted in the first division on 7 November 1993, aged 17, in the Albacete Balompié- CDTenerife game and made 2 appearances in the season. His first goal as a professional came in a 2–0 home win over Racing de Santander in October 1994.
"I will never forget the first goal I scored with Albacete in 94/95. Possibly the most important " – Morientes on his first goal
Moro finished the campaign with a total of five goals in 20 league games and also performed well in the Copa del Rey. In 1995, Morientes decided to part ways with Albacete and joined Zaragoza where he spent another two seasons. At Zaragoza, he formed a partnership with Real Madrid youth graduate, Dani. Under the guidance of manager, Victor Fernandez, he consolidated his position in the first team scoring 13 goals in 29 matches he played. The team finished 13th place and made it till the quarterfinals of the King's Cup. The duo of Dani and Morientes was a hit. However their professional careers, which were parallel until now, took turns as Dani would eventually join Barcelona and Morientes signed for Real Madrid.
Having scored 36 goals in two successful years at Zaragoza, Moro caught the eye of Spanish giants Real Madrid who signed the striker for €6.6 million in 1997. But the transition wasn’t an easy one. He had to face stiff competition from teammates Predrag Mijatović and Davor Šuker. Initially, playing second fiddle to them, Morientes’s performances eventually improved. He scored 12 times in 33 games for Los Blancos, becoming the club’s top scorer that season. Arguably, the highlight of the season for Morientes was winning the European Cup in 1998. His tenure at Zaragoza and Real Madrid also played a role in him being called up to represent the Spain National team in 1998.
At Madrid, Moro became the perfect partner for Raúl. The pair formed a fearsome combination having first met in the Spain youth setup. The two formed a very deadly striker partnership for Real Madrid and the Spanish national squad between 1998 and 2002, until Morientes was replaced by Ronaldo in the Real Madrid starting eleven. Raúl and Morientes were like perfect 'dance partners'. They brought out the best in each other. Morientes is remembered as a great striker, but people don't always remember how incredibly good he made Raúl. Raúl and Moro were described as "telepathic", "magical", "the perfect strike partnership", "a perfect understanding," and as they loved to tell people they were best friends off the field, too. The synergy with Raúl was also transferred to the national team. In 47 games he scored 27 goals, making him one of the best goalscorers in the history of Spanish football. He made his international debut on against Sweden, scoring twice in the first five minutes in a 4-0 victory. It wasn’t the first time he had scored on his debut, he also did for Albacete, Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Spain’s u-18 and u-20 teams.
Morientes performed decently in the 1998–99 season, scoring 25 times in 38 appearances overall. He continued to display top performances in 1999–2000, netting 19 times and finishing as Real's top scorer in a year where he also helped them clinch a second Champions League title in three seasons, scoring in the 3–0 win over Valencia CF in an all-Spanish final. The following season, he won the first of his two league titles with Real Madrid and netted ten goals overall. In 2001–02, though Real failed to win the league, Morientes continued his scoring form, scoring 18 league goals in only 25 starts. He helped the Merengues win the Champions League after beating Bayer 04 Leverkusen thereby receiving a third Champions League winners medal.
In 2002, Real Madrid signed Brazilian superstar Ronaldo from Inter Milan. This prompted rumours that Morientes would soon be leaving the club, with FC Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur reportedly interested – the former were reportedly on the verge of signing him, but the move fell through due to Barça's reluctance to match his wage demands. Eventually, Morientes stayed at Madrid, but he did not feature as much in the side after the arrival of Ronaldo, who was preferred alongside Raúl. He fell down the pecking order of strikers to Guti and Javier Portillo. In February 2003, Moro was involved in a spat with club manager Vicente del Bosque. Amidst rumours of a move away form Madrid, he remained at the club for the remainder of the season, as Real went on to win the league and he earned his second league medal.
In 2003–04 season, it was evident Morientes was not part of Real's plans. After extensive but ultimately unsuccessful negotiations regarding a loan deal with Germany's FC Schalke 04, he was loaned to Ligue 1 side AS Monaco FC, where he performed very well, netting ten goals in 28 appearances in the league. But his stint at Monaco will always be known for his Champions League performances where he really made an impact, finishing as the top scorer at nine goals. Monaco met Morientes’s former club Real Madrid in the quarter-finals, where Moro scored a vital away goal in the first leg, in the second match he again found the net as Monaco won 3–1 thereby eliminating Real on away goals rule. One of the most emotional moments in all of football has to be the hug he gave to Raúl after the game.
"To play against them (Real Madrid) is something special and even more so when you are playing in a great competition." – Morientes on playing against Real Madrid
He also found the net in both games of the semi final victory over Chelsea, but could not prevent a 0–3 loss in the final to FC Porto.
After returning to Real Madrid at the start of the 2004–05 campaign, Morientes' hopes of forcing his way into the Real squad were further squandered with the signing of Michael Owen. He would only feature in 13 matches. He finally decided to leave Real Madrid and joined Liverpool in January 2005 for a fee of €9.3 million. During his time at Real, he made a total of 182 league appearances scoring 82 goals. Real Madrid was the pinnacle of Moro’s career, the love he has for the club is evident in Morientes’s words:
“My biggest achievements have come with Madrid. I've got great memories of my time there and they'll always have a special place in my heart. I spent a long time with them and I've still got a lot of friends at the club.”
Morientes' arrival to Liverpool in January 2005 was hailed as a masterstroke by Rafa Benítez. Steven Gerrard was excited at prospect of teaming up with the Spaniard:
"You know you're not taking a risk. It's good from a symbolic point of view that we've signed someone who's so renowned as a world-class player. I just hope, after all the success he's had and trophies he's won, he's as hungry to do the same for us."
Morientes was frustratingly cup-tied for the remainder of Liverpool's Champions League campaign because he had already played for Madrid in the season. Liverpool eventually ended up victors. Morientes was thrown in at the deep end, starting matches soon after his arrival as Rafa was desperate that his compatriot would gain match fitness. The Spanish striker netted in his fourth game, in an away win against Charlton. However, slight knocks and European ineligibility restricted his progress and he only added one goal before the end of the season, lacking sharpness in front of goal. Moro, in a spell of 16 months could never achieve the heights he did at Real Madrid. A shadow of the prolific striker that Liverpool fans had seen over the years, his work ethic was there, but the English game where football is much more direct in nature; his playing style didn’t seem to suit it. There was no doubt about Morientes' class and experience but sadly he never really managed to become a first team player at Liverpool. The Champions League had always been kind to Morientes throughout the years and his brightest moments in the red of Liverpool came in the Europe's premier competition. A brace against CSKA Moskva opened his account for the season and he scored a sensational goal against Anderlecht. However, Morientes was anything but prolific in the Premier League. Rafa tried to defend his fellow Spaniard:
"If you sign a young player people accept he will need time. If you sign a star, people want him to produce immediately. Nobody can say Morientes is a bad player. He is really good in the air, good with both feet, makes good movement and is a good finisher. He is a fantastic player. Is he playing at his level? Maybe not."
Morientes did manage to win some silverware in England before his departure when he won the FA Cup with Liverpool. He joined Valencia in July 2006 after a disappointing spell at Anfield. After a depressing season at Liverpool, he was also omitted for the FIFA World Cup campaign in 2006. Moving back to Spain, an inspired Morientes scored in every other game in his debut season at Mestalla but the further seasons saw a slump in his form. In July 2009, at the age of 33 and having taken his career total of club goals past the two hundred mark, Morientes left Valencia on a free transfer and signed a two-year deal with Marseille. Morientes won the French league under Didier Deschamps' guidance. In August 2010, Morientes announced his retirement from the game.
Even though his career came to a hard end, the charisma that was associated with him never disappeared.