Alvaro Morata warmly thanked Italy’s veteran Juventus contingent for helping him to develop as a player – improvements the Spain striker hopes will be their undoing at Euro 2016.
The defending champions take on four-time World Cup winners Italy in a mouth-watering last-16 tie at the Stade de France on Monday, with Morata in prime form following three goals during the group stage.
The 23-year-old will return to to Real Madrid next season, with the Champions League holders activating a buy-back clause to end his two-year stint in Serie A.
Italy and Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is likely to line up behind club colleagues Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci in a formidable Azzurri rearguard, hailed Morata’s talents in his pre-match news conference.
The Spaniard revealed a close friendship with Juventus forward Simone Zaza – “I speak with him every day, we’re always joking,” – and retains considerable gratitude for being made to feel at home during his time in Turin.
“Everyone who’s been my team-mate and who is here in the national side has helped me,” he said.
“I arrived in Italy and needed help with everything – tactically, getting to know the city, and they helped me.
“I have so much respect for them. They helped me so much. Hearing what my team-mates from my club side said this year has really been nice.
“From a personal perspective, everyone did what they could to help me improve as a player.”
Morata puts much of this improvement down to the rigours of facing the likes of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci on the training field day-in, day-out.
“It’s difficult to attack them, they are specialists in defending and tactically they are almost perfect,” he explained.
“In Juve I improved tactically. Before, I didn’t have a great idea before in many things. For a forward, Italy is very difficult. Attacking against the Italians is very difficult and that improves you.”
Buffon is pleased to see Morata excelling on the biggest stage and the 38-year-old gave an insight into the tough love the forward was given when his form wavered earlier this season.
“Alvaro Morata is still a young man and I think not even he is aware of just how good he is at times,” he said.
“He has the gift that only the top players have – he always stars and often scores in the most important matches. He is confirming that at this European Championship.
“Clearly Spain aren’t only Alvaro Morata but clearly he is the focal point of the attack and, based on the goals he is scoring, he definitely is their main threat.”
Buffon added: “It was at the start of the campaign and, just like all young players, when they go through a tough time they tend to get a bit down and look for excuses – down in the dumps and feeling sorry for themselves.
“I told him that once he had stopped feeling sorry for himself then he could once again become a match-winner.
“He is a young, intelligent man who is willing to listen and step back and take a look at himself. The way he finished the season is a demonstration of everything I just said.”