Ever since he burst onto the scene five years ago, Isco has always looked capable of becoming one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.
Now, finally, it is happening. In 2012, Isco was making waves with Malaga, playing a key role in Manuel Pellegrini’s team’s unexpected march to the Champions League quarter-final and then starring on the international stage as Spain won the European Under-21 Championship.
His subsequent move to Real Madrid was no surprise and he made a bright start to his Bernabeu career, scoring a late winner on his league debut against Real Betis. But then followed a long period of frustration, with Isco repeatedly seeming to be heading for the exit door after failing to establish a regular place in the starting line-up.
Isco’s main problem was that he was never really given an opportunity to play in his best position as a central attacking midfielder, just behind the front two but with licence to roam.
Playing in that position was essentially impossible because it simply did not exist in the 4-3-3 shape employed almost exclusively by coaches Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez and Zinedine Zidane. Isco was therefore forced to compromise and fill in wherever he was asked, occupying a range of roles which didn’t really suit him.
Finally, however, towards the end of last season Zidane made the break away from the 4-3-3, which was looking defensively fragile because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s unwillingness to track back.
Ronaldo’s repositioning as a centre-forward alongside Karim Benzema meant a change in formation, with the defensive importance of Casemiro and the ball-playing skills of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric virtually forcing Zidane’s hand into fielding a midfield diamond.
That shape arose by necessity rather than design, but it was perfectly suited to Isco who finally had the chance to really show what he can do.
Needless to say, he made the very most of that opportunity by shining in his team’s glorious conclusion to last season, and he continued on Tuesday night with another starring role in the Super Cup win against Manchester United.
Now, any suggestion that he could be sold would be ludicrous, and a new contract is just around the corner. Better late than never.
Has Gareth Bale found him-self a new role at Real Madrid? The Welshman headed into Tuesday night’s UEFA Super Cup with his future in doubt after a poor and injury-plagued end to last season, but he came away from
the contest with another medal and fresh hope that his Bernabeu career is not yet over.
Aside from his recurrent physical problems, before Tuesday night the biggest argument against Bale staying in Spain rather than returning to England was that it was difficult to see where he could fit into Zinedine Zidane’s team.
After all, Los Blancos are preparing for the campaign on the back of a superb couple of months, which concluded with them winning their first La Liga and European double for more than 10 years. Not only was Bale absent during that golden run, but Zidane also developed a new shape which omitted wingers in favour of a narrow midfield diamond with the team’s width coming from the full-backs.
This seemed to spell big trouble for Bale, who has spent his entire Madrid career to date playing as a left or right winger in a 4-3-3 formation. If that approach has been discarded, where does Bale fit in?
Against Manchester United in Skopje, however, we were given a potential answer: centre forward.
With Cristiano Ronaldo only just back in training and last season’s back-ups Alvaro Morata and Mariano Diaz both departed, Real are lacking depth in the striker role and Zidane opted to give Bale an opportunity in that position. He took it with both hands.
Although Bale didn’t quite manage to get himself on the scoresheet, he did more than enough during his 73 minutes on the field to suggest that he could, quite feasibly, become the team’s third centre forward, competing with Karim Benzema and Ronaldo.
In his new central role, Bale was heavily involved from the very start, winning a corner after 90 seconds with a powerful burst into the box and then firing a stabbed shot over the top after shaking off the attentions of Nemanja Matic.
The Welshman continued to more than play his part as Madrid proceeded to dominate the game, often looking to play off the shoulder of United’s centre backs but also pulling wide onto the flanks and troubling the opposition wing-backs with his direct running.
Bale then had a goal disallowed for a close call offside after linking up well with Benzema, and early in the second half he played a big part in the goal which ultimately secured victory, combining neatly with Isco to provide a precise one-two pass which his team-mate stylishly slotted home.
Shortly after that, he was only denied a goal by a matter of inches after thrashing a powerful right-footed drive past David de Gea and against the crossbar. And although Bale’s influence waned as United battled to get back into the game, he had delivered a strong reminder of his talents.
Questions, however, remain. Firstly, it’s likely that Bale only started because Ronaldo was not match-fit following his extended summer break. Secondly, the prospect of Kylian Mbappe arriving at the Bernabeu from Monaco this summer remains a very real one, which would provide another forward to further threaten Bale’s prospects of getting into the team.
But it seems certain that Bale has no intention of quitting Madrid just yet, and he’s unlikely to be pushed out. And if he’s prepared to become a squad player rather than an automatic starter, he might just have found himself a new niche.
Cristiano Ronaldo returned to training with Real Madrid on Saturday, for the first time since his participation in the Confederations Cup.
Ronaldo, along with his team-mates trained at Valdebebas, where they did some warm-ups, stretching followed by a game.
The Portugal international had been keeping up the intensity during his holidays, prior to joining his team-mates, as his Instagram posts showed.
This was also Ronaldo’s first training session amids reports of him wanting a move away from Spain, where he has been facing tax fraud allegations as well.
The 32-year old forward is expected to take a part in Real Madrid’s European Super Cup game against his former club Manchester United on August 9.