A Juventus move last summer appears to have brought Fernando Llorente’s career back from the brink, but has the former Athletic Bilbao man done enough to prove worthy of being included in Spain’s 23-man World Cup squad?
Most notable for his San Mames stint, Llorente became a regular in the starting XI in 2007. The 2005 Fifa World Youth Championship Silver Boot winner would rack up double figures in his next five consecutive campaigns, and lead Los Leones to the Europa League final in 2012. His Bilbao stay went into free fall from there however, when he was exiled to the fringes after refusing to extend his contract.
But the 29-year-old returned to his physical best at Juventus after overcoming the inertia of being benched the previous season. Llorente’s 11 goals in 28 matches turned out to be instrumental for the Italian champions as they surged to the top of Serie A, the forward striking up a prolific understanding with Carlos Tevez.
Llorente’s progress was evidenced as he made Vicente del Bosque’s squad in international friendlies versus Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa. Boasting a 1.95m frame and equally adept with the ball at his feet as he is with his head, Llorente has the characteristics to fulfil the very specific tasks required of La Roja’s centre-forwards.
As Spain’s demands evolve, so have personnel been pushed through the revolving door. Turning away from the redundant David Villa and Fernando Torres – sometimes opting to eschew pure strikers from the line-up entirely – Del Bosque’s favour is now switched to the tenacious, energetic play offered by Alvaro Negredo and the naturalised Diego Costa.
Llorente has what it takes to bring a similar added dimension, and can even usurp the duo. He provides a focal point in Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2, using his strength to hold up the ball and bring attacking teammates into play.
Meanwhile, transformed into a lethal offensive weapon when Conte went against the grain to play a 4-3-3 against Real Madrid in the Champions League, El Rey Leon would go on to net twice. His natural presence in the area became too much to handle for Raphael Varane in the Turin fixture, as he terrorised the young defender throughout.
Going further back, the Pamplona native has consistently showcased his worth as the central axis around which the attacking line, comprising nimble wingers in support, can pivot. His sense of versatility honed in Marcelo Bielsa’s novel 3-3-1-3 setup, Llorente combined impeccably with the silky Iker Muniain, Oscar De Marcos and Markel Susaeta to famously claim Manchester United’s scalp, amongst others, in Europe.
To allocate one more player equipped with that unique skillset in Brazil would certainly be a boost to Spain’s prospects this summer. Increasing his goals-to-minutes record will further put Llorente’s cause up for consideration.
With Costa looking out-of-sync debuting with his new countrymen in March’s slender victory over Italy, Del Bosque may elect for an extra failsafe by bringing the rejuvenated Basque striker on board.