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From a star to a shadow - What's wrong with Real Madrid's Isco?

7:41 PM GMT 02/03/2018
Isco Real Madrid
The Spain midfielder was hugely important last season, but has fallen out of favour somewhat recently and Los Blancos seem to play better without him

Something is amiss with Isco. The 25-year-old seemed to be on a crest of a wave as he helped Real Madrid win a Champions League and La Liga double in 2016-17, but this term, things have been rather more difficult for the former Malaga midfielder.

While the Spain star took his chance in the extended absence of Gareth Bale last season and stayed in the side all the way to the Champions League final in Cardiff, he is now not even a guaranteed starter when Los Blancos are missing several key players.

An unused substitute in the Clasico clash against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu before Christmas, Isco has started only six of Madrid's 14 games so far in 2018 and when he has featured, he has looked a shadow of his former self, slowing the team down in what is now a predictable 4-3-1-2 system.

Tuesday's loss at Espanyol was one of those occasions. It was the midfielder's 227th appearance for Real, a number that saw him draw level with his coach Zinedine Zidane for games played in the famous shirt.

It should have been a night of celebration. Instead, however, it was one of frustration as the midfielder was withdrawn following another ineffective display, trudging off the pitch as he was replaced by Karim Benzema with 21 minutes left. 

And that is nothing new, either. Of the 68 games he has started under Zidane, Isco has completed the full 90 minutes in only 16 of those. Less than 25 per cent.

The Champions League last-16 first leg against Paris Saint-Germain was another of those and it was no coincidence that Madrid went on to win after he had left the pitch. Isco departed after 79 minutes along with Casemiro as Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez came on to swing the match in Real's favour, contributing to goals in the 83rd and 86th minutes.

Asked about reports in February that he could sell Isco, Zidane replied: "I said I've always believed in my team and I will do until the very end. When I start something I get involved, I believe where I'm going, what I should be doing and I back the people I'm working with.

"Isco's one of them. He a very good footballer. He's proven that in the past and will do that again. I want Isco [in my team] and I want him to spend his whole life here. It's a lie that I want Isco to be sold in the summer. Hopefully we won't hear any more of this."

However, the player's performances have not really improved since then and he has cut a forlorn figure in recent games, while there was criticism in Spain from a sector of the media after he walked slowly off the pitch while the scores were level against Espanyol.

Nevertheless, Zidane defended the midfielder again on Friday. "Isco's attitude is always spectacular," he said. "He always trains very well. It's normal he's angry at times, but that has no importance to me. There's no story."

Unless his form picks up, though, Isco's displays will remain a talking point among the press and also the fans in Spain. And Zidane will hope his player, who signed a new contract only last summer, can get back to writing the kind of headlines he did with his fantastic football last season.

Because at his brilliant best, there are few finer footballers around.