When Isco signed for Real Madrid last summer, worrying comparisons were made with Sergio Canales’ failed transfer to the Bernabéu. In July 2010, Canales, only 18, signed for Madrid after becoming one of Spain’s hottest prospects, bursting onto the scene with a number of eye-catching performances for his struggling boyhood side Racing. Twelve months later his career was all but ruined, after an injury-hit season in which he had found opportunities limited.
Of course, this is not strictly true. Canales was only 19 when he left the capital to join Valencia on loan (later he would join permanently) and still had the rest of his career ahead of him. Even so, there were questions as to whether the youngster would ever fulfil his potential after that year wasted at Madrid. Fortunately he is now at Real Sociedad, where he seems to be back to his best.
It is easy to see why parallels were drawn with Isco’s signing. Like Canales, Isco had stood out as a big fish in a small pond at his previous club Malaga. He was instrumental in his team’s improbable run to the Champions League quarter-finals, and was brilliant for Spain’s Under-21 side, as they swept all before them at that summer’s European Championships. Florentino Perez jumped at the chance to sign the midfielder, and he was soon presented as a Real Madrid player. He was given the number 23, the same as David Beckham during his time at the club, perhaps an indication of how highly Perez rated him. Certainly the Real Madrid president had high hopes for the fledgling Spaniard. No pressure then.
But for a while it looked as if Isco would be frozen out of the starting eleven, just like Canales. After a bright start, scoring on his debut against Betis, he seemed to fade and fall behind in the pecking order. His defensive contribution was heavily scrutinised, and Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-3-3 formation which didn’t favour Isco’s creative talents seemed to be the final straw. It wasn’t long before Isco was cruelly being labelled the ‘next Canales’.
Not so on Wednesday night against Barcelona. Some eyebrows were raised when the youngster was named in the starting lineup, with some arguing Isco wouldn’t offer Xabi Alonso enough protection. But despite these worries, Isco put in one of his best performances in a Real Madrid shirt, hassling Barça’s players relentlessly and putting in a huge defensive effort. Xabi Alonso, in contrast, was largely anonymous. As Marca pointed out, no other player made as many ball recoveries as Isco (12), despite the likes of Busquets and Modrić being on the field. It is an impressive stat, especially for a player who earlier this season was heavily criticised for his lack of defending. His superb off-the-ball work was demonstrated in the first goal, in which he dispossessed Dani Alves to start the move which culminated in Di Maria’s finish.
It was a sign of how Isco has become a crucial part of Madrid’s transitions in recent weeks, and has finally settled at the Bernabéu. He has adapted to a new role since falling out of favour, demonstrated in recent games against Dortmund in the first leg of the Champions League tie, and against Almería on Saturday.
It was fitting that Isco’s coming-of-age should come at Mestella, where he began his career with Valencia. Forget Canales; if Isco keeps performing like this, he could swiftly become a vital player in Ancelotti’s lineup.
By Tomás Hill López-Menchero