It seems hard to credit after yet another magical performance in Skopje, but just twelve months ago Real Madrid’s Málaga-born maestro Isco was seemingly surplus to requirements at the Santiago Bernabéu.
But that’s how it was for a player who flattered to deceive in his three seasons in the Spanish capital up to that point.
The big question going into the UEFA Super Cup clash with Manchester United was whether Zinedine Zidane would start with Isco or Gareth Bale, but in the end the Frenchman elected to pick both with Cristiano Ronaldo starting on the bench.
And there was quite the delicious irony when the duo in direct competition for a place in the side combined for what proved to be the decisive goal.
It’s not often that the absence of a €100 million footballer could be cast as a boon. But Gareth Bale’s injury woes at Real Madrid opened the door for Isco who relished the opportunity to move centre stage, becoming the most decisive player in the team until Ronaldo exploded into life in the final two months of last season.
Perhaps Isco’s biggest obstacle since joining in 2013 was that they switched from the 4-2-3-1 of the José Mourinho era to a 4-3-3 under Carlo Ancelotti, which left no obvious place for him.
Never one to rock the boat with overbearing presidents, Ancelotti all the same may well have never wanted the player.
Indeed, he provoked a bout of head-scratching when he announced that the man he had in mind to fill the departing Mesut Ozil’s shoes was the erstwhile winger Ángel Di María.
Florentino Pérez himself had been unconvinced of the young Spaniard’s virtues, but current manager – and then technical director – Zidane pushed hard for the recruitment of a kid in whom he saw something of himself, something of the street.
Zidane remained largely faithful to that 4-3-3 template when he replaced Rafa Benítez as manager.
The one real abiding memory of Isco in the 2015/16 season was a cameo role in extra time in the Champions League final against Atlético Madrid where his presence lifted the pressure, offering an outlet for a dribble, and smartened up their circulation of the ball.
As the Spanish say, “he allowed them to breathe.”
By coincidence perhaps, it would be against the same opponents at the Calderón last autumn that we would see the first flickers of a flame that would become a bonfire.
That day, Madrid ran riot against an opponent who’d lorded it over them domestically in recent times, romping to a 3-0 win. Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick grabbed all the headlines in a first league win over their city rivals in three years.
But Isco – finally liberated to play that role immediately behind the frontline – produced a dazzling and audacious display.
As Madrid rotated heavily – between the so-called A Team and B Team – over the opening months of 2017, Isco continued to shine brightly, producing his best run of form since he joined the club alongside Bale.
And when the Welshman endured a lengthy spell on the sidelines, finally a place was made for Isco in the ‘A Team’.
The press had been slow to praise Zidane for any particular tactical acumen, but when they faced Atleti in first leg of the Champions League semis, he concocted a 4-3-1-2 which saw Isco run riot as Ronaldo again bagged three.
In the return, he was again the key, his eleventh goal of the campaign crushing the Atlético rebellion.
Suddenly, everyone was talking about him; and the comparisons with Bale were as relentless as they were unkind to the crocked Welshman.
El País’s José Sámano described Isco as a “footballer”, downgrading Bale to a mere “player”, wryly remarking that the ex-Spurs man remained an athlete first and foremost.
MARCA’s Roberto Palomar went so far as to compare the Welsh winger to such notorious sick-notes of yore as Robert Prosinecki and Jonathan Woodgate.
A cruel statistic began doing the rounds that Madrid had paid €1m covering Bale’s injuries, amounting to nearly half Isco’s annual salary; a salient point with Los Blancos eager to extend latter’s contract.
That renewal has not yet happened, but the fear of losing him to Barcelona – very real back in the spring – has long since been snuffed out. “It’s going to happen soon, we’re very close,” he said after Tuesday’s victory in the Macedonian capital.
As for Bale, nobody disputed that he can be a player of brilliant and important moments.
In his first season alone, he scored the extra-time winner against Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final and also chipped in with the goal that decisively swung that years Champions League final in Los Blancos’ favour.
But the most frequent criticism has been his combination play with his colleagues, a prized virtue in the post-2006 era of Spanish football. How sweet it must be for him, then, to have been the man to play that one-two as Isco struck Madrid’s second against United.
Sweeter still it was for a player who has been consistent in saying he doesn’t want to leave the Meringues to hear his president’s words on a Radio Cadena SER post match.
“We’re not even contemplating selling Bale,” Pérez told the host of El Larguero. “We are very satisfied with him.”
“He’s one of the best players on the planet.”