Seldom has the contrast between Isco and Gareth Bale been as clear as it was on Monday, the two domestic teammates finding themselves experiencing completely juxtaposed footballing fortunes.
In Jerusalem, Isco was brought off the bench against Israel and changed the entire complexion of the game, so impressive was his performance for Spain, he received a standing ovation even from the home supporters. In Cardiff the cameras focused on the stands where an injured Bale watched Wales slip to World Cup elimination.
Isco will arrive at the World Cup in Russia as one of the brightest stars in world football, alongside Andres Iniesta he will be the pivotal creative figure for Spain, under the brilliant Julen Lopetegui the team has gained the reputation of being the third favourite next to Germany and Brazil. On the contrary, Bale will miss the summer showpiece and at 28 years old, he may well have said goodbye to his final chance to play at a World Cup, something Wales last did in 1958.
Hours before the two matches took place on Monday, the 30 finalists for the Ballon d’Or were announced, Isco was among the nominees alongside six other Real Madrid players, but the Welsh forward was not one of them. The 2016/17 season was one marred by injuries as his various ailments caused him to miss 29 matches. At the same time the former Malaga playmaker forced his way into Zinedine Zidane’s first-team and then consolidated his place, even starting the Champions League final ahead of Bale in his home city of Cardiff.
Throughout 2017, Isco has been taking the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s place in the Los Blancos hierarchy. This is surprising when you consider that at the beginning of the calendar year, he was so far behind Bale that, as he waited for Real Madrid to offer him a contract extension, he privately confessed to teammates that he would perhaps find better fortunes away from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus and Barcelona were all immediately interested.
In the ten months that have followed, Valencia academy graduate Isco has matured and grown as a footballer, leaving behind a stage in his career that was characterised by only the occasional outstanding performance. He has added consistency and become a more effective member of the team.
Nobody disputes Isco’s worth any longer, he is a player who has the confidence to try things on a football pitch, although this isn’t necessarily a new development, his style hasn’t changed but rather he has been afforded more opportunities to show it, something that has increased his knowledge of the game.
In comparison, more and more fans are beginning to question Bale. Although he has started his fifth season in the Spanish capital with yet more injuries, the Welshman still has time to reverse the downward trajectory his Real Madrid career is currently on. He must work to overcome his fitness problems and rediscover his form, though he must be quick because, between Isco and Marco Asensio, Bale’s place at Madrid is being severely overshadowed.