Eight years ago, a 26 year old Spanish midfielder by the name of Andres Iniesta truly came of age with a series of composed and classy performances in the middle of the park in South Africa as his side advanced through the rounds to reach the Final of the 2010 World Cup. His Extra-Time winner to defeat a physical Dutch side ensured he returned home to Spain having written the most glorious chapter in his nation’s football history to seal his status as a true 21st Century football legend.
Fast-forward to 2018 and while an ageing Iniesta remains part of the Spanish set-up, it is another 26 year old midfielder who has emerged as the man most capable of firing La Roja to glory in Russia. Isco’s importance will only increase after this World Cup when a host of Spanish stars will most likely end their international careers but in truth his time is now and it is he, rather than the likes of Iniesta, Busquets or David Silva, who Spain will most likely turn to for inspiration over the next month.
His rise to a position of such importance for both club and country has taken its time but over the past couple of years, Isco has put in some brilliant performances in both the white of Real Madrid and red of the Spanish national team.
Overlooked for Euro 2016
Isco’s talent was evident from an early age and the world seemed to be at his feet when in 2013 he made his international debut whilst still at hometown club Malaga before landing a dream move to Real Madrid that summer. However despite flashes of brilliance and some strong performances, Isco struggled to truly win the trust of both Vicente del Bosque and his coaches at Real Madrid.
The 2014 World Cup perhaps came a bit too soon with the class of 2010 very much still around at that point but when at the age of 24, Isco was left out of Spain’s Euro 2016 squad, there seemed a real danger that Isco was going to be one of those players that would struggle to fulfil his early potential and may never develop into anything more than a peripheral figure in the Spanish set-up.
OFFICIAL: Spain’s final 23-man squad for Euro 2016. 🇪🇸 pic.twitter.com/7NIK3sFz9h
— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) May 31, 2016
Bale’s Loss is Isco’s Gain
If one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity, then Isco certainly took it as he benefited from Gareth Bale’s endless injury problems in 2017 to finally take his place as a regular in the Real Madrid starting line-up. Isco’s performances at the end of the 2016-17 season were so good that he forced Zinedine Zidane into permanently altering a formation and approach that had already delivered Champions League glory.
Some virtuoso displays from Isco in an attacking midfield role where key as Real clinched both La Liga and the Champions League to seemingly finally put an end to Barcelona’s era of dominance. His ascension to Real Madrid regular was confirmed when he was selected ahead of a fit-again Gareth Bale for the 2017 Champions League Final in Cardiff as Los Blancos put in perhaps their most convincing European display of this era of continental dominance to hammer Juve 4-1.
Isco tears into Italy to fire Spain to the World Cup
As a Spaniard playing regularly again for Real Madrid, it was more a question of when and not if Isco would get his chance at international level. The appointment of Julen Lopetegui as the new national team boss appeared to work in his favour given Isco had starred under Lopetegui as Spain won the European Under-21 Championship in 2013. However it wouldn’t be until Spain’s sixth 2018 World Cup qualifier against Macedonia in June 2017 that Isco was finally handed a competitive start by Lopetegui.
His second start of the campaign came a few months later as Spain hosted Italy in the decisive game in determining the destiny of Group G. Both sides were level on points heading into the game so it was a clear statement from Lopetegui that he felt Isco was now ready to deliver the goods on the big stage.
Playing on his home ground at the Bernabeu, Isco certainly didn’t disappoint. In a game between two of the true European powerhouses, Isco ran the show, leaving established Italian internationals flat-footed as he bagged two First Half goals and inspired a 3-0 Spanish win, widely regarded as the best performance by La Roja in the five years since the glorious golden era ended with an equally dominant win over the Azzurri at Euro 2012.
Read more: Spain’s Best Ever World Cup XI
A hat-trick against Argentina and a warning to the world
In the space of 90 minutes that evening at the Bernabeu, Isco pencilled himself not just in Spain’s World Cup squad but in their starting line-up for the tournament in Russia. His form since then in the red shirts of Spain has only strengthened the notion that Isco could just be Lopetegui’s most important player this summer in Russia.
His latest masterclass came in a friendly against Argentina in March. While Leo Messi was absent, a 6-1 victory over opposition of such quality was a result that further signalled the reemergence of this Spanish side as a genuine force to be reckoned with and again Isco was at the centre of things. Playing in almost a right-wing role, the Andalusian bagged a hat-trick to move onto 10 international goals, 9 of which have come in the last two seasons.
Where will he play in Russia?
Isco will finally appear at a major tournament for the first time this summer and barring injuries he is sure to start Spain’s opening game against Portugal. The question is not if he will play but where with the Real Madrid midfielder capable of occupying a number of roles.
Under Carlo Ancelotti and at times Zinedine Zidane at his club, he has been utilised in a deeper midfield role but his form over the past 18 months has proved he is at his best when he can really influence things in the final third. If Lopetegui opts to play with a natural striker like Diego Costa we could see Isco play in behind him in the number 10 role, perhaps even operating as a second striker at times.
However his starring roles for Spain this season have come in a wider role than he has typically been used in at club level. He’s by no means a natural winger so even though he is likely to appear on the right flank when formations are announced, expect Isco to regularly drift inside and drop into a more orthodox attacking midfield role, whilst looking to make darts into the penalty area to further improve his impressive goals tally.
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