Race to be Spain’s number nine not over yet, Llorente says

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MADRID (Reuters) – The battle to be one of Spain’s center forwards at the World Cup finals in Brazil next year still has a long way to run, Juventus striker Fernando Llorente said on Thursday.

The 28-year-old front man has been called up as a replacement for the injured Diego Costa for the world and European champions’ friendlies in Equatorial Guinea and South Africa over the next few days.

Atletico Madrid’s Costa has muscled his way into the reckoning for one of the striking positions since turning his back on the country of his birth, Brazil, and, with his dual nationality, has chosen instead to play for Spain.

He has made a spectacular start to the La Liga season, where he is second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring charts with 12 goals, and he has caught the eye of Spain boss Vicente del Bosque who has been impressed by his energy and movement.

Costa, however, has been forced to pull out of his first call-up with a muscle injury, and Llorente, who helped Spain to win the 2010 World Cup, has another chance to impress.

“There is a lot of competition in all the positions though it is true there are a lot of strikers in the frame,” Llorente told a news conference at the team’s training base in Las Rozas outside Madrid.

Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, Manchester City’s Alvaro Negredo, Tottenham Hotspur’s Roberto Soldado and Costa’s Atletico team mate David Villa are all vying for Del Bosque’s attention.

“It’s a long race. There are six or seven months until the World Cup. We are all going to give our very best, to try to prove what we are capable of,” Llorente said.

“Costa is a great player. He’s been here a number of years and has decided to play for Spain. I think he can bring a lot to the team. I am sure the coach will be pleased he can count on him.”

The Pamplona-born Llorente moved to the Italian champions from Athletic Bilbao on a four-year deal at the beginning of the season, but has struggled to break into the first team until recently.

He has managed only two goals in Serie A so far but strikes at home and away against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage show that he is perhaps starting to settle into Antonio Conte’s side.

Amid the debate over whether Costa should be called up by Del Bosque in place of other strikers, the Spanish public showed their appreciation for Llorente, warmly applauding him at the Bernabeu when he went off.

“Strikers live for their goals so it’s probably true that I am here because I have scored in recent games,” said Llorente, who has seven international goals from 22 appearances.

“Just being in the national team demands the very best of you. It’s always difficult to get into it, and it is even more difficult at present.”

Spain play Equatorial Guinea in Malabo on Saturday and three days later take on South Africa in Johannesburg’s Soccer City, where they lifted the World Cup after their final victory over the Netherlands in 2010.

(Reporting by Mark Elkington, editing by Clare Fallon)

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