Real's British-style goal machine starts new life at Liverpool

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The Independent Online

Three European Cup winners' medals, two league titles, the top scorer in the last edition of the Champions' League, voted best forward of the season by Uefa, the leading Spaniard in the voting for the Golden Ball award, and the most effective striker in the national side - with a cupboard full of honours like that you would expect Fernando Morientes to be treated as a jealously guarded treasure by his club and country.

Three European Cup winners' medals, two league titles, the top scorer in the last edition of the Champions' League, voted best forward of the season by Uefa, the leading Spaniard in the voting for the Golden Ball award, and the most effective striker in the national side - with a cupboard full of honours like that you would expect Fernando Morientes to be treated as a jealously guarded treasure by his club and country.

But the 28-year-old striker has never received the recognition he has deserved from Real Madrid or Spain. It is little surprise, then, that after spending yet another season warming the bench at the Bernabeu he has decided to join the burgeoning colony of his fellow countrymen at Liverpool.

One of the most un-Spanish of Spanish players ever to play up front for Real Madrid, Morientes has always been too close to the classic mould of a British-style centre-forward to win a place in the hearts of the fans. Strong in the air, quick-thinking and a deadly close-range finisher, Morientes is too clinical to have a place at a club where, since the arrival of the president, Florentino Perez, and his acolytes, image has become all-important. But it is precisely these skills which have led Rafael Benitez to insist on his signing for a club in desperate need of his services.

If purely footballing matters had been of primary consideration, Morientes could and would have become a key part of Real's glittering squad. It takes little imagination to work out that if David Beckham had been used in his old Manchester United slot on the right wing rather than wasted in the middle, the powerful centre-forward would have filled his boots with goals on the end of the England player's crosses. Almost unbelievably, such a combination has never even been tried at Real.

Born in the province of Extremadura, a harsh, rugged region on the border with Portugal which was once home to the Conquistadors, Morientes first caught the eye as a player at Albacete as a 17-year-old. He signed for Real Zaragoza in 1995, scoring 28 goals in two seasons before being snapped up by Real Madrid for close to £4.5m. At that time, Real's recruitment policy was based on creaming off the best players from middle-ranking Primera Liga sides and offering them lucrative long-term deals, and Morientes was one of their best buys.

Renowned for his prowess in the air, he got his career at Real off to a dream start, scoring twice inside the first 20 minutes of his debut against Salamanca. He went on to become an important part of the side that won the 1998 European Cup, a victory that allowed Real to regain its status as kings of the Continent after a 32-year wait.

Forming a lethal partnership with his close friend Raul, Morientes picked up two more European Cup winners' medals in the next four years, weighing in with the crucial opening goal in the 3-0 win over Valencia in 2000 and playing in the side that beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 in 2002. He also helped Real to league titles in 2001 and 2003.

He finished the 2001-2002 season as Real's top scorer in the league with 18 goals, helping himself to five in Real's 7-0 victory over Las Palmas in February. But a few months later he became one of the first casualties of Perez's galactico recruitment policy.

Perez tried to use Morientes as a makeweight in the deal to sign Ronaldo in August 2002, first as part-exchange for the Brazilian World Cup winner and then by selling him to Barcelona. Raul and the club captain, Fernando Hierro, were up in arms about the club's treatment of their friend.

Ronaldo arrived with all the fanfare accorded to Perez's new recruits, while Morientes ended up warming the bench. After losing his place in the national side he was left little choice but to move on, joining Monaco on loan, with Real agreeing to pay about two-thirds of his £3.2m salary.

Under the guidance of the Monaco coach, Didier Deschamps, he became far more rounded, learning to play in behind the lead striker as well as up front on his own. His scoring feats helped to steer the Ligue 1 side into the final of the European Cup and he finished as top scorer in the tournament with nine goals.

In a delicious piece of irony it was Morientes's goals that helped eliminate Real from a competition they had come to see as their own. His late strike in the 4-2 first leg of the quarter-final at the Bernabeu was crucial and he went on to score another in the 3-1 win in the return to ensure Monaco went through on the away goals rule.

His performances won him a return to the Spanish national squad for Euro 2004 and he has since taken his international tally to 25 goals in 38 games, a better strike-rate than Raul. At the start of this season, the new Real coach Jose Antonio Camacho persuaded Morientes to return to Madrid, assuring him that he would feature in his plans. Things started well enough when he scored both his side's goals in their 2-0 first-leg win over Wisla Krakow in a Champions' League qualifier.

But when Perez went over Camacho's head and signed Michael Owen, the Spaniard slipped to fourth choice behind Ronaldo, Raul and the England striker. Then Camacho resigned as Real coach after three league matches and Morientes ended up an onlooker under Mariano Garcia Remon.

The 28-year-old's only league start was in the seven-minute held-over game against Real Sociedad and, with his patience running out, he put in a request to leave. Real's loss will be Liverpool's gain, the only sadness for Benitez being that his new recruit will be cup-tied in the Champions' League - and so there is no hope of a repeat this season of his magic at Monaco.

ANFIELD'S SPANISH ENCLAVE

JOSEMI (Defender)

Age: 26; Fee: £2m

Rafael Benitez's first signing as Liverpool manager, featured in the Malaga side that knocked Leeds out of the 2002 Uefa Cup.

ANTONIO NUNEZ (Midfielder) Age: 26; Fee: Part exchange for Michael Owen

Although a knee injury forced him out for three months, his recent performances have failed to convince the fans.

LUIS GARCIA (Midfielder)

Age: 26; Fee: £6m

The tricky playmaker has dazzled in front of the Kop but seems to disappear when playing away from Anfield.

XABI ALONSO (Midfielder)

Age: 23; Fee: £10.5m

The ideal foil for Steven Gerrard, his performances have been impressive. His presence will be missed as he recovers from a broken ankle.

MAURICIO PELLIGRINO (Defender) Age: 33; Fee: Free

Eight years in Spain made this Argentinian a household name. He formed a solid defensive partnership with countryman Roberto Ayala at Valencia. Has played in, and lost, two Champions' League finals.

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