By Sid Lowe
October 23, 2010

When Vicente del Bosque decided to leave Fernando Llorente out of Spain's starting XI for their visit to Hampden Park to face Scotland on Oct. 12, no one could quite believe it. The national team coach appeared to have taken leave of his senses. If anyone had to play, it was Llorente -- the man of the moment, the country's most in-form striker, and the hero just four days earlier with two of his side's three goals. He was the blonde, blue-eyed boy fast becoming the subject of a tug of war between two titans: Real Madrid and Barcelona.

How times had changed. When del Bosque sent Llorente on against Portugal at the World Cup, few could believe that either. Mostly, they were calling for Cesc. Or Pedro. Or Jesús Navas. Or even Juan Mata. But not Llorente. More to the point, when Del Bosque first called Llorente into the Spain squad in November 2008, they couldn't believe it. Forums were full of mockery and disgust. Although Llorente had shown glimpses of his talent, much as he'd been second top scorer at the U-20 World Cup (behind Leo Messi), Athletic Bilbao were in the relegation zone and he'd scored just two goals in 10 games, and 14 league goals in three seasons.

If Del Bosque wanted a striker, they said, he'd be better off going for Joseba Llorente -- the Villarreal striker whose side were at the other end of the table and who had scored 45 in his previous three seasons. In fact, maybe that was the reason: Del Bosque must have got his Llorentes mixed up. It was meant as a joke but true words were said in jest. It must be some kind of mistake.

It was no mistake.

It was true that Llorente was struggling, but the raw material was there. He was fast and skilful, strong in the air and an instinctive finisher. He just needed to apply himself. Quite literally. Llorente is big and tall -- 1 m 93 cm (6-foot-3) and 91 kilos (200 pounds) -- but he appeared not to know it. He did not seem to realize just how much he could impose himself on games if only he would impose himself on opponents. For a giant he was rather gentle. Timid and instantly likeable off the pitch, he wasn't mean enough on it. He had even admitted so himself: "I don't always believe in myself; there are days when I'm apathetic."

Del Bosque, though, could see the improvements in his game and the chance to improve him still further. The call up itself clearly helped, giving Llorente confidence. But the work was already being done on him, especially by Athletic Bilbao's notoriously tough coach Joaquín Caparrós who was constantly on his back, bullying him, drilling him -- much as he did with other players who came through under him at Sevilla.

And -- again by Llorente's own admission -- the change came. "He is learning to use his strength and his body better," said the former Athletic striker Ismael Urzaiz, himself the embodiment of the battering ram striker. That was two years ago; this summer his international teammate Gerard Piqué summed up the change: "I really suffer when I play against him. He's strong, he uses his body well, he's quick, he pushes you about. He's a great striker." He had become the striker Del Bosque always hoped he would. He had become the striker other clubs hoped they could sign.

With Spain it did not take him long to prove he could be useful. A goal against England in only his second match was followed by a World Cup call up. And yet, despite an excellent second half to last season (which he finished with 14 goals), his inclusion was one of the few decisions Del Bosque made that some were not sure about. After all, he had only made five, mostly brief, appearances for Spain. Then again, what did it matter? He was a squad member, unlikely to play.

Llorente did not play much at the World Cup but he did play a key role. He came on against Portugal and, although he didn't score, he did change the game, causing the center backs problems, bringing others into the play, pushing the opposition back, right into their own six-yard box. His suitability for Spain was confirmed. He offered something different to the rest of the side; he was a giant amongst very small men. He was an alternative. But he was more than that, too. He was, at last, respected.

After the World Cup, Llorente scored Spain's only goal in a friendly defeat in Argentina. In the next game, when he scored two in a 3-0 win against Lithuania, he shifted from alternative to many people's first choice. Fernando Torres was injured but many felt that even when the Liverpool striker returns, Llorente should be chosen ahead of him. He had scored three in two games for Spain and had started his domestic season in fantastic form for Athletic Bilbao too, with a goal in each of his first three games. Barcelona and, especially, Madrid started to take a keen interest. He was splashed across the covers of the papers.

For Spain, Llorente offered something different. Of his six goals for Spain, four had been with his head. In total, he had had 18 attempts on goal as a Spain player; 14 of them with his head. Yet that did not mean he was some great big donkey to lump the ball up to. He could play tiki-taka too. He was perfect for the Scotland game: not only did he have the talent but he had the physique to face the Scots -- expected to defend deep and play a direct, aggressive game. He was bound to play. he had to play.

Del Bosque did not agree. Surprisingly, he left Llorente out of the starting XI. Spain took a 2-0 lead and were cruising; they had tiki-taka'd their way past the Scots, who barely saw the ball. Suddenly, though, Scotland grabbed two goals. In the blink of the eye it was 2-2. Spain had to get their lead back. Spain had to try something else. And so Del Bosque turned to Llorente. Two minutes later, he volleyed in a cross to make it 3-2. It was his first touch of the game. It was his third goal in four days. It was probably a few extra zeros on his transfer fee.

When it came to Llorente, many thought that Del Bosque was wrong. He wasn't. Well, not in November 2008 anyway. Or May 2010. Or in June 2010. In Scotland in October 2010, on the other hand, for the first time he might just have been. Once upon a time including Llorente in the Spain team seemed a risky decision; these days leaving him out is even worse.

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