The Chilean was a much-heralded addition to the Bianconeri squad last summer, but his game has yet to reach anything near the level it was at before a serious knee injury in 2012COMMENT
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
It wasn't just thanks to Antonio Di Natale and Alexis Sanchez that Udinese became Italy’s most successful provincial outfit in recent years. Francesco Guidolin’s coaching and the quality of players like Samir Handanovic, Kwadwo Asamoah, Gokhan Inler and Mauricio Isla helped the Zebrette to successive Champions League qualifying spots in 2011 and 2012.
The break-up of such a side was inevitable enough, and Juventus were one of the first vultures on the scene to pick at the carcass as the Friuliani first team was dismantled last summer. Asamoah was an obvious choice in many ways, the Ghanaian having become one of the most consistent midfielders in Serie A over his four years in the north-east, but fewer people gave the signing of Isla the same kind of prominence when looking at Juve’s summer deals.
The 24-year-old’s style at the Friuli was not born of the sheer pace of Sanchez, the magnificent marksmanship of Di Natale, nor the fantastic all-round features of Asamoah in midfield. His real effect on the side was not always immediately obvious. Instead, he displayed the kind of athleticism, endurance, and sheer will – both in attack and defence – which really fused the side together, while also proving to have real ability on the ball, with a quick footballing brain.
One drawback that was clear from the moment Juventus first showed an interest was the fact that Isla was injured. In February 2012, he damaged knee ligaments in a home defeat to AC Milan, ruling him out of first-team action for seven months. It was the first serious injury of the Chilean’s career, coming after a four-year stint in which he had never missed more than four successive league games.
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But still, the Bianconeribelieved Isla to be worth the gamble, purchasing 50 per cent of his transfer rights from Udinese and taking over the final part of his rehabilitation as he looked to overcome his major setback.
Unfortunately for both club and player, the move is yet to really come to full fruition. Four months on from his return to the playing field, Isla has only played 309 minutes in the league for his new employers, and his struggle to find his best form has led to many Juventus fans and pundits underestimating his ability and potential importance to the Old Lady in the longer term.
The long layoff of 2012, coupled with the loss of a full pre-season as a by-product, clearly hit him hard, while the murmurings of discontent can also maybe be attributed in part to the fantastic impacts of recent Juve signings such as Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Stephan Lichtsteiner and the aforementioned Asamoah. When there is a habit for new buys to hit the ground running, a sluggish start elsewhere only serves to stand out even more, and Isla has seemingly become a victim of circumstance in this regard too.
It should be stated in no uncertain terms that Isla is a better player than he has shown for Juventus so far. There have been flashes of his true worth, with some probing forays against Lazio in midweek helping the Turin side to set a platform in the Coppa Italia semi-final, but flashes are about all they have been.
More noticeable on the whole have been the more disappointing performances, including a stinker in the loss to Milan in November which saw him hauled off at half-time for central midfielder Simone Padoin to replace him as a wing-back. Since then, he has played just eight minutes in Serie A.
But Isla will need time for things to come good. And he may also benefit from a change of formation to allow him a longer run in the first XI. While he is very well suited for the 3-5-2, so is Lichtsteiner, and the Chilean played in a number of positions in a multitude of systems during his Udinese days, excelling in them all. Able to fill any of the right-sided slots in a 4-3-3, he could well prove crucial to Antonio Conte’s thinking should the coach switch back to a shape he has used previously, while he has also played in the centre of midfield to great effect before too.
Yes, some players have struggled to reproduce their form with provincial sides once making the step up to a true giant before, but Isla has more than enough in his locker to suggest he can put his poor trot this season behind him. Off the back of such a monumental injury any player would need some time, but for somebody who had become so used to the week-in, week-out nature of regular football, it can be even tougher.
A little bit of patience can often go a long way, but it is a virtue so often lacking when the demands of a top club are thrown into the scenario. However, if Isla is given time to grow, he can yet show that he has more than enough to be a Juventus star for years to come.Follow Kris Voakes on