London: Just a month ago, Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata wore a dejected expression and looked bereft of self-belief.
Unreliable with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, it seemed as though Chelsea playmakers Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro preferred to work with the steadier, less combustible figure of Olivier Giroud as a target man up front.
There was media speculation that Chelsea, uncertain whether they could maintain their English Premier League title challenge with a non-goalscoring centre-forward, would be offloading Morata in the January transfer window.
The transformation has been extraordinary in the last four weeks.
Morata appeared sharp, busy and hungry on Sunday as he took his tally to four goals in four league games, one more than in his previous 23 games in the competition, with two goals in Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.
“I am really very happy for Alvaro,” Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri said. “He improved in the last month in confidence and personality. He improved also from a tactical and technical point of view.”
Sarri believes Morata is finally showing the form that persuaded Chelsea to pay a club record fee of about 60 million pounds to tempt the Spanish striker away from Real Madrid 18 months ago.
“Potentially he can be (a top striker),” Sarri said. “He has great potential physically and technically. He can improve more. Sometimes he is a little bit fragile.”
Hazard also seems delighted with Morata’s recent resurgence. The Belgium forward sported a wide grin when he hugged his teammate after producing the free kick that led to Morata’s second goal against Palace.
Morata almost ended up with three goals but was unable to lift the ball over Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey when he went clean through in the closing stages.
“I could have scored a hat-trick, so it was not the perfect day,” Morata said. “I am improving and I want to keep helping my team to win. It is very hard because the Premier League is the most competitive league in the world. When you have a bad period, it takes long to recover. But now I am good. It is nice to be scoring.”
Former Manchester City manager Mark Hughes knew his Southampton team were in deep trouble at Etihad Stadium when two of the opposition’s smallest players were coming out on top in aerial duels in attacking areas.
“When you’ve got David Silva and Raheem Sterling winning headers in your own box, that cannot happen,” Hughes said after Southampton were crushed 6-1 by league leaders City.
“Seeing that I thought, ‘Come on, we need to be more aggressive, more determined, in our defensive play.’ That was a frustration for me because we talked a lot before the game about what we were going to do, but very quickly our game plan went out of the window.
“City ask different questions of you, they keep knocking on your door and they pick you off. You can come here and put everyone behind the ball and try to see out 90 minutes, but I’ve done that before and still got beaten.”
It was the 12th time that City have scored five or more goals in a league game since Pep Guardiola took over as manager two-and-a-half years ago. No other team has achieved the feat on more than six occasions in the same time.
Sergio Aguero became the ninth player to score 150 Premier League goals when he netted against Southampton. It came in his 217th appearance and only Alan Shearer, in 212 matches, has reached the landmark in fewer games.
The other eight to have netted 150 Premier League goals are: Shearer (260 goals), Wayne Rooney (208), Andy Cole (187), Frank Lampard (177), Thierry Henry (175), Robbie Fowler (163), Jermain Defoe (162) and Michael Owen (150).