Futbolita

Spain’s red-hot striker Fernando Llorente ready to take centrestage

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He is arguably Spain's in-form striker of the moment.

With Barcelona's David Villa ruled out of the upcoming Euro 2012 championships and Chelsea's Fernando Torres struggling to regain his best form, the presence of Fernando Llorente, Athletic Bilbao's imposing 1.95m tall striker, in the Spanish squad could not have been a more reassuring sight for La Roja fans the world over.

Nicknamed the "Lion King" (El Rey León) by Spanish fans who liken his trademark hairstyle to the cartoon character, Llorente has earned a reputation as the loyal "Basque Boy" who spurned the courting from Spain's big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona, to stay with Bilbao, the club he joined as an 11-year-old in 1996.

Llorente's loyalty paid off this season as he helped Bilbao to a runners-up finish in both the UEFA Europa League and Copa del Rey competitions, their best achievements yet.

Known for his aerial prowess and an uncanny ability to beat the offside trap, Llorente has grown to become a defender's nightmare since making his La Liga debut in 2004.

After scoring against Manchester United in Bilbao's recent Europa League round of 16 match in the recently-concluded season, he has also begun to attract admirers from the Premier League.

Now at the peak of his footballing career, the 27-year-old hails the beginning of a new era for him, and for Spanish football on the whole, in this exclusive interview with Yahoo! Southeast Asia (SEA).

"I feel that I've evolved a lot professionally and personally since the World Cup, where I did not get to play much but (where) I learned a lot from my experience and won the biggest prize in football," he explained, speaking over the phone from Bilbao last month.

As Spain's third-choice striker in their successful World Cup 2010 campaign, Llorente featured briefly in only one game -- the last 30 minutes of their 1-0 second round victory over Portugal.

But after yet another impressive season with Bilbao, where he racked up 29 goals in 53 appearances, Llorente could find himself in coach Vicente del Bosque's starting line-up when Spain meet Italy in their opening match on June 10.

While he is aware of the magnitude of the task facing the defending European champions, Llorente is nevertheless confident.

"The 'La Seleccion' (nickname of the Spanish national team) are going into Euro 2012 with a lot of expectations and pressure because of our previous achievements, but there's no doubt in my mind that it's possible to make history and retain our title," he said.

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The Pamplona native admitted that the squad is focused on retaining the Henri Delaunay  trophy — a feat that has never been achieved  since the tournament began in 1960.

"It's an honour for me to represent Spain. Although we have our differences and come from (various) parts of the country, we are still a team, and a unit and we have to work together in training and the dressing room," he stressed.

Llorente has netted seven goals for Spain so far, most crucially in their Euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Scotland, when he came off the bench to score twice.

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"The biggest test will always be the national Championships because you are playing on the world stage, and representing your country with millions of people watching," he added.

"There's a lot of pressure (and) it's true that Spain will probably send players who've already won a lot (such as Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas) to the tournament. But I also see this as a chance for young players to prove how good they are on the world stage."

Besides Llorente, Spain's Euro 2012 debutants include club mates Javi Martinez and Juanfran as well as Valencia's Jordi Alba.

"Javi and Juanfran are two of the best young players in the country at the moment and I've seen them both grow at Bilbao. They're quick, versatile and ambitious. I think they are future of the Spanish national team," he enthused.

"Spanish football is changing, and we are starting to see a variety of players that come from all parts of the country - not just Madrid or Barcelona.

"Valencia and Malaga have done extremely well this season, but their players rarely get a chance to represent Spain. I'm always thankful for a call-up because it means that the coach has thought about how I can contribute to the team," Llorente added.

THE NAMESAKE

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When the European Championships kicks off in a few days, Llorente could also find himself in the same team as his namesake and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres.

Ironically, Llorente's full name is Fernando Llorente Torres. He had adopted his middle name early in his career to avoid confusion with the Blues goal-getter.

Despite the latter's indifferent club form, it is clear Llorente still holds him in the highest regard.

"To me, Fernando (Torres) is still one of the best strikers in Spain and it would be a pleasure for me to play alongside him at Euro," he said.

"All players will receive criticism if they do not perform well, especially if it's in a big competition like the Premier League. But I respect him as a teammate, and as a person - he is a great guy," he continued. "We will try our best for Spain at the Euros, and of course, (try to) score as many goals as possible."

On Villa's absence from the tournament, Llorente said, "Villa is a fantastic player and has done amazing things for us and it is a pity that he and Puyol can't be there for us at the Euro. But this is a chance for me and (other players) to show what we can do."

With Villa out of the reckoning, Del Bosque's choice of strikers were limited to Sevilla's Alvaro Negredo, Valencia's Roberto Soldado, Torres and Llorente.

However, the former Real Madrid coach has since dropped Soldado from his final squad, explaining that he was looking to bring only "team players" to Poland and Ukraine.

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But as Llorente noted, even without Villa and Soldado, Spain is flush with talent in attack, with Juan Mata, David Silva, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Fabregas all capable of chipping in with goals from midfield.

"We have some of the world's best players in our squad, but we can't afford to make silly mistakes.  It will be too early to say that we will win the tournament, but we're definitely working towards it in training," he said, pausing a while before adding, "It's going to be huge."

Indeed, it is still too soon to say if Llorente and Spain will have a good tournament, but the signs certainly look promising.