Isco has gone from Real Madrid's odd man out to crowning jewel
The little magician, they call him. Disco Isco, the man with the moves like Jagger but none of the pouting and preening. Throughout most of the season, Zinedine Zidane's favourite trick has been making his midfielder disappear before the final whistle, the leader of the dance rarely hanging around for the final waltz. But on Wednesday, everything points to Isco starting and completing the full 90 minutes in the Allianz Arena.
Isco excelled against Malaga a week ago, scoring one and assisting on another in a 2-1 victory on his old stomping ground, where the home fans chanted his name. But it was four days earlier that he proved his full worth to Zidane, when Madrid narrowly avoided going out of the Champions League against Juventus.
While the home side were falling apart, Isco provided the glue that held them together as their 3-0 advantage was chiseled away with the highest pass success rate of any Real player. When Zidane decided to make changes at half-time in the Bernabeu, it was not Isco, the perennial early departure, who made way, but Gareth Bale and Casemiro. A year ago, that would have been all but unthinkable.
In the previous leg in Turin, Isco achieved perfection: according to Opta, 54 passes out of 54 found their target, and one was the assist for Cristiano Ronaldo's third-minute strike. When he left the pitch for Marco Asensio with a quarter of an hour to play, he was not the first to go; Karim Benzema had been hooked 15 minutes earlier.
In total, Isco has completed 90 minutes for Madrid in La Liga and Europe just nine times this season. That the most recent of those was against Juventus is testament to his self-confidence. Now, he has made Zidane a believer as well. Isco has played just five minutes fewer than presidential and managerial favourite Benzema in 2017-18, a statistic that is likely to change before the end of the season with the striker's Madrid career at its lowest ebb. Isco is currently Zidane's 12th most-used player. That he will in all likelihood end the season inside the first 11 overall is apt: a vast majority of Bernabeu supporters believe that is exactly where he should be every week.
The previously ironclad status of the "BBC" has been shot to pieces this season. To Zidane's credit, he has rewarded performances with pitch time and Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have also benefitted from the Frenchman's policy. But it is Isco's situation that Real have to manage most carefully. At 26, he is reaching his peak, and as a key component of Julen Lopetegui's Spain side, who are among the favourites at this summer's World Cup, there will be no shortage of offers if he publicly expresses a desire to leave this summer.
Barcelona made Philippe Coutinho the second most-expensive player in history in January, preempting Andres Iniesta's presumed decision to leave Camp Nou at the end of the season. Real have no such plan in place for a player who can be spoken of in the same breath as the Barca great and is similarly irreplaceable. Like his Spain teammate, Isco is a once-in-a-generation type of midfielder. The focus at both clubs inevitably falls on Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but the departure of Iniesta will be as keenly felt in Barcelona as the Argentinean's, when that time comes.
At Madrid, losing Isco would be a sporting and institutional disaster. That he has previously been linked with a move to Catalonia is evidence of his standing, if the rumour was accurate -- it is a rare occurrence indeed for Barca to make a direct target of a Bernabeu player. As recently as February, Isco's position in the team appeared under question when Bale returned from his latest injury setback. Now the Wales forward and Benzema are making all the wrong headlines, with the winger reportedly at loggerheads with Zidane over his reduced role in the run-in.
After Isco scored a hat trick for Spain against Argentina in a 6-1 friendly victory last month, he said he felt "alive" with La Roja, citing the faith placed in him by Lopetegui. "Maybe at Madrid I'm the problem. I don't know how to win Zidane's confidence."
A spectacular April has put that matter to bed. What began with a start ahead of a half-fit Bale in last season's Champions League final has come full circle. Now it is the €101 million man who is looking on from the bench in the big games while Isco takes centre stage.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.