Real Madrid boss Santiago Solari declared his “love” for Isco during a grilling about the misfit playmaker ahead of Wednesday’s 2018 Club World Cup bow against Kashima Antlers.
Isco, 26, has played only 95 minutes in La Liga since the Argentine entered the dugout on November 3 and didn’t even warm-up during Saturday’s 1-0 win against Rayo Vallecano. This state of affairs dominated proceedings in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City before the semi-final clash with the AFC Champions League holders, that also doubles as a repeat of 2016’s tense global decider.
“I love him,” was Solari’s succinct reply when asked about his under-utilised attacking midfielder.
Prior to this answer, the ex-Los Blancos winger – who won the 2002 Intercontinental Cup with them as a player – had attempted to shift attention to his imminent opponents.
The 42-year-old said: “We are focused on today and on the match against Kashima, and so I see him and all the others, working with the enthusiasm that deserves the selection that they themselves have earned. Each one of them can be decisive in the match, so that we reach the final.”
CWC holders Madrid landed in Abu Dhabi on Sunday and have been training at New York University Abu Dhabi. Their sessions have attracted hordes of dedicated UAE-based supporters.
Los Blancos have prevailed in three of the last four CWCs. In 2016, this involved a nervy 4-2 extra-time triumph against Kashima, a final in which they were forced to fight back from 2-1 down.
Go Oiwa’s men secured another meeting with Madrid thanks to Saturday’s 3-2 triumph against Mexico’s Guadalajara, a tie in which they roared back from 1-0 down.
Solari was expecting another tough test against them.
He said: “I think it’s a team that has more experience than two years ago. They have three or four foreigners with a lot of quality.
“It is a fast, dynamic team that likes direct football, has fast strikers and is going to be a worthy rival in a very beautiful match.”
History also weighed on minds in the Kashima camp.
Attacking midfielder Shoma Doi started all three matches in Yokohama two years ago and witnessed a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick deny his side a historic victory in the rollercoaster showpiece.
The 26-year-old cannot wait to run out in Abu Dhabi and make amends.
“Real Madrid are footballing giants, they’re an amazing club,” he told FIFA.com. “Their achievements in the past show just how big the club is.
“We’re obviously challengers against them and we’ll be going into that game challenging for a giant-killing.
“We’re delighted to play against them again. We want to surprise them and we’ll be at our best.
“We know that if there’s a moment when there’s a lapse of concentration, they will punish us.
“That’s what we learned from the 2016 final. We don’t want to give them that.
“We’ll concentrate for the whole of the game. Not even a glimpse of a lack of concentration will do for us. We’ll be at our best and express our football against the giants.
“This is Kashima Antlers. This is how we play.
“Even in the worst situations, we never give up and always play until the end.”
Kashima are again expected to be without striker Yuma Suzuki because of a muscle problem.
For Madrid, Brazil defensive midfielder Casemiro and Spain utility man Nacho are both available after six-week injury lay-offs. Kashima are a free-scoring side, so their talents could be required.
Wales forward Gareth Bale’s knock against Rayo should see him rested, ahead of Saturday’s finale.
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