#360view: Isco looks set for key role in Zidane's Real Madrid

Andy West 11/01/2016
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Back in the mix: Isco.

One game is far too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions, but Zinedine Zidane could not have wished his coaching debut with Real Madrid to have gone any better than Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna.

The performance, highlighted by Gareth Bale’s hat-trick and Karim Benzema’s brace, served to confirm something we already knew: Madrid possess the quality to score a bundle of goals against any opposition.

And although Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t get his name on the scoresheet, he was plentifully involved in the game and will continue to find the back of the net. There’s no need to worry about that.

From the long-term perspective, rather than the result itself, the most interesting aspect of the game was the early glimpse it provided into Zidane’s tactical plans. There had understandably been a great deal of anticipation to discover how he would set out his team, and the answer was more nuanced than expected.

When in possession, Madrid were in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a conventional back four protected by the midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who were playing deeper and closer together than they had under Rafa Benitez.

In front of them, Isco was the man charged with fetching and carrying, looking to get in between the lines of the opposition defence and link the Los Blancos midfield with attack, which saw Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo revert to starting positions on the wing – although with licence to roam inside – as opposed to the more central roles they occupied earlier in the season.

In itself, that approach was interesting enough and marked a considerable change from the tactical system used by Benitez, but even more fascinating was what Zidane asked his players to do when they lost possession and had to defend.

Rather than holding their starting positions, the front six shifted into a 4-4-2 formation, with Isco shuttling out to cover the left wing and Ronaldo drifting upfield and infield alongside Karim Benzema.

What that basically did was relieve Ronaldo of any real defensive duties, instead asking Isco to carry out even more running by effectively filling two positions at once: attacking central midfielder with the ball, and left winger without it.

That is clearly a challenging task from a physical point of view but also represents a major opportunity for the gifted Spain international, who has been in and out of the team ever since moving to the Bernabeu from Malaga in 2013.

During that period, Isco has regularly shown flashes of the brilliance that once made him the most-hyped young player in Spain, but he has never been able to nail down a place in the starting XI – partly due to the guaranteed starter status handed to Bale and Ronaldo, and partly because he’s a victim of his own versatility, which makes him the perfect squad player rather than holding down a set position.

Now, though, Isco may have a chance to finally fulfil his undoubted potential. He would appear to be in a straight fight with James Rodriguez for the hybrid midfield/winger role, and Isco’s greater athletic ability would make him a more likely candidate.

Time will tell, but perhaps Zidane’s reign will also prove to be Isco’s.

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Al Wahda centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali handed UAE recall

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Back on the scene: Hamdan Al Kamali (right).

Temperamental Al Wahda centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali’s year in the international wilderness has ended after he was recalled by the UAE for Saturday’s friendly against Iceland.

Al Kamali, 26, has not been able to add to his 29 caps since he started the 2015 Asian Cup group stage victory against Bahrain. An injury to Al Ain veteran Ismail Ahmed, 33, has seen coach Mahdi Ali open the door to the former Lyon loanee.

The game – a vital warm-up for March’s decisive AFC second-round qualifiers against Palestine and Saudi Arabia on the long road to the 2018 World Cup – could see Al Nasr right-back Ahmed Al Yassi, 27, handed his debut on home soil at Al Maktoum Stadium.

Ali has been denied the services of a number of players. Al Ain winger Mohamed Abdulrahman is injured, while forwards Ahmed Al Attas of Al Jazira and Mohamed Al Akbari of Al Wahda are among those away at the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship in Qatar which is a qualifier for Rio 2016.

Iceland’s numbers will also be depleted. The Euro 2016 entrants have only selected Scandinavia and China-based players as the match is not being held in a FIFA-designated international week.

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UAE side land in Doha for AFC U-23 Championship

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High hopes: Abdulla Ghanem.

The UAE’s fight for a spot at Rio 2016 edged closer on Sunday as they landed in Qatar ahead of the decisive AFC U-23 Championship.

Dr Abdullah Misfer’s charges require a top-three finish at the tournament to follow in the footsteps of the class of 2012 and secure a second-successive entry into the Olympics.

A tough opener against Australia awaits on Thursday as play in Group D gets under way, but Sharjah full-back Abdulla Ghanem, 20, is convinced the support of the nation will inspire them.

He said: “We hope that our fans retain their presence as always behind the national teams in all various forms. “Our team now needs to focus during the current period and make a double effort to compete and achieve positive results which will satisfy the aspirations of the UAE.”

The Whites travelled to Doha with a provisional 24-man squad, which will see its number reduced by one prior to the Olyroos test.

This spot is being filled by Emirates Club attacking midfielder Walid Ambar. There was a late blow for Dr Misfer as Al Nasr defender Khalifa Mubarak, 22, was ruled out of the tournament through injury.

Al Dhafra youngster Abdulrahman Yousuf, 22, was called up in his place. The UAE have played three warm-up matches, defeating North Korea 3-0 and China 2-0 prior to a comprehensive 3-0 loss to South Korea.

Al Ain left-back Saeed Musabbeh, 21, insists the painful lessons learned from the setback on January 4 will be used positively at the Championship.

He said: “The players are constantly striving to perform to the level which is required of us in the field. We were not successful against South Korea, but this is not the end because it was a friendly.

“We know the negatives and positives we can take from the match and we will make use of them before the finals. When the results are not as required in friendly matches, it inspires us to do better in the official confrontations. I would like to assure all the Whites supporters we are ready.”

The UAE’s quest to reach next summer’s event will continue in Group D against Jordan on January 17 and Vietnam on January 20. At a minimum, they will require victory in January 26’s semi-finals to qualify.

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