By Enis Koylu
So, after round one, it's all square. Last week's 0-0 draw between Malaga and Borussia Dortmund was the first time Mario Gotze and Isco faced one another, and no one came closer to breaking the deadlock than the young duo.
Three times the German found himself through on goal, only to be denied by a combination of poor finishing and inspired goalkeeping from Willy Caballero, while his Spanish counterpart looked as though he had given his side the lead with an angled drive which Roman Weidenfeller superbly parried.
It was disappointing that neither managed to make a decisive mark on the biggest stage, having enjoyed coming-of-age seasons. Both have stepped into the void left by star playmakers who left for the Premier League, with Shinji Kagawa moving to Manchester United from BVB and Santi Cazorla to Arsenal from La Rosaleda.
Along with the usual suspects of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they have arguably been the best players of this season's Champions League, too.
Pitted against the champions of England, Spain and Netherlands in the group stage, Dortmund stunned Europe by playing some marvellous football, with Gotze at the fore. Time and time again, he tore Manchester City apart at the Etihad, he scored at the Bernabeu and put in a marquee performance in the Amsterdam ArenA as BVB ran out 4-1 winners against Ajax.
Clearly eager to make up for his side's failures in the competition last season and his own string of unfortunate injuries, he has been his team's star player in recent months as the likes of Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan have tailed off, and he was no better than in the game against Shakhtar Donetsk.
With the score finely balanced at 2-2 from the first leg in Ukraine, Gotze produced the best showing of his young career, netting the second in the 3-0 win with a lovely flick and setting up countless opportunities for his team-mates thanks to his superb vision and awareness.
As Gotze was starring against Shakhtar, Isco was making his mark in Andalusia. With Manuel Pellegrini's men trailing Porto from the first leg at the Dragao, Isco scored a fantastic goal to level the tie and swing it in his side's favour.
Malaga's fairytale in the Champions League has been nothing short of remarkable and the new Spain international has been the shining light in the team of misfits and veterans.
Within three minutes of his debut in the competition, he had put his side ahead against Zenit St Petersburg, who reached the round of 16 last season and had been bolstered by the €80 million double scoop of Hulk and Axel Witsel.
As the group stage wore on, he was the talisman in a brilliant side who sent the Russian champions packing and pipped AC Milan, winners of seven European Cups, to top spot by four points with an unbeaten record.
|"Isco has a bright future ahead of him. He's at the beginning of his career and no one knows how far he might go"
- Manuel Pellegrini
Amid all the turmoil over the club's ownership, unpaid wages, and an upcoming European ban, Malaga's performance levels haven't dropped under the on-pitch leadership of Isco, and Pellegrini recognises his charge's importance.
"Isco is a player who has a bright future ahead of him. He's just at the beginning of his career and nobody knows how far he might go," the Chilean enthused.
With the scores all square after the first leg between Malaga and Dortmund, anything can happen in the Signal Iduna Park return. Just as the hosts will pin their hopes on Gotze, the Boquerones will pin theirs on their star with a semi-final spot on the line.
In 2011, Gotze won the Golden Boy Award for Europe's best young footballer and Isco scooped it a year later. Before too long, it seems certain they'll be fighting for the Ballon d'Or.
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