Champions League final: Rejuvenated Isco's cerebral presence in midfield gives Real Madrid the edge

For all the narratives and subplots in the momentous European Cup final between Real Madrid and Juventus, French coach Zinedine Zidane has faced one major conundrum: will he field Gareth Bale or Isco? The decision may well decide the final.

In recent weeks Cristiano Ronaldo yet again took the limelight with his superb hattricks against Bayern Munich and city rivals Atletico Madrid, but Isco has been the glue of the Madrid team. He has excelled, replacing the injured Gareth Bale in the BBC trident. He is Madrid’s MVP. The floating Spaniard has been everywhere, a cerebral presence, who connects the dots and Madrid’s entire game.

Isco has been the glue that's bound Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid together. AFP

Isco has been the glue that's bound Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid together. AFP

Ostensibly Isco played in the front three against Atletico but he dropped much deeper, allowing CR7 to play as support striker for Karin Benzema with the Portuguese turning into a consummate and conventional center forward. And so as Cardiff loomed, Madrid at long last gelled. This was not the disjointed outfit that has been so puzzled at times, but a cohesive collective who played as the sum of their parts and more.

Isco ran in between lines and knitted Madrid’s midfield together with the attack. That’s a peculiar development, because in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric Madrid already possess two outstanding playmakers. Yet the 25-year old is different. He plays higher up the field and unsettles opponents with his dainty slaloms.

In many ways, Madrid have been aided by Bale’s absence, because it has allowed Zidane to switch from his favored 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 system with a narrow diamond in which Casemiro at the base is the midfield enforcer and Isco at the top the playmaker. In the past, the number ten position simply didn’t exist in Zidane’s Madrid.

“He reigns free everywhere past the center of the pitch and is very hard to predict and catch,” said Sonja Nikcevic, a Serbian football journalist and Spanish football follower. “I watched him at the 2013 European Under-21 Championship in Israel. He was named player of the tournament. Isco was at the heart of one of Spain’s most brilliant youth teams. He was a part of almost every attack. His movement was incredible, which is the reason why Real Madrid snapped him up right after.”

Isco made a €30 million move to the Spanish capital. Previously, he had played at Unai Emery’s Valencia, where his opportunities were limited. Isco wasn’t compatible with the Basque coach’s style. His character was questioned - the talent obvious, but the mindset somewhat immature. He left for Malaga, who activated his buy-out clause of €5 million. There, he developed further under Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini.

But it is in the second half of this season that Isco has truly blossomed. The Spaniard has eleven goals and eight assists to his name, a La Liga title and a European Cup medal, the color of which will be determined against Juventus.

He is the extra man in midfield trough which Real Madrid can exert great control over a match. Isco could overload Juventus’ midfield and with it define the final and its outcome.

“He brings that calm,” says James Nalton, a football journalist for the British newspaper Morning Star. “He offers patience to wait for the right moment and that is what Real Madrid may just need against the solid Italians. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale play in a one dimensional way. You need a bit of brain to go with your pace and power.”

In the semi-finals Isco demonstrated his intelligence abundantly. In the first leg against Atletico Madrid he didn’t mispace a single of his 42 passes. When he did, just after the hour mark, Zidane decided to substitute him and Isco received a standing ovation. Against Juventus, he will seek a repeat performance to crown Real Madrid European champions yet again.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 14:00 PM

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