SEPTEMBER 5 — On Saturday night during the World Cup qualifier between Spain and Italy at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, home team midfielder Isco received possession midway inside the Italy half and wriggled away from the attentions of marker Antonio Candreva.
It appeared the ball was getting away from him as Italy’s most celebrated player, Marco Verratti, strode forward to make a challenge.
But Isco had other ideas. Quick as a flash, before Verratti could even realise his intention, Isco stabbed the ball deftly through his opponent’s legs, leaving him tackling thin air and drawing gasps of admiration from the crowd.
He wasn’t finished yet. Isco then surged into space, dribbling forwards 10 yards, spotted his teammate Dani Carvajal making a run down the right and delivered an inch-perfect pass into the path of the full-back, who was only denied a goal by a brilliant save from Gigi Buffon.
There, in a mesmerising five-second burst, Isco showed why he is currently the best attacking midfielder in the world.
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll trust the words of Verratti, the man who was left humiliated by Isco’s cheeky nutmeg and later reflected: “Even Lionel Messi has never done that.”
Or hark the verdict of defeated Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura, who admitted: “I could not help but applaud him. He was our rival but I still love the beautiful things in our sport. He has incredible class, obviously superior to the rest of the players.”
Of course, one flashy piece of skill doesn’t make a player world class, but there was a lot more to Isco’s performance than just that nutmeg on Verratti.
He also happened to score the game’s first two goals, firstly with a perfectly placed free-kick over the defensive wall, and then with a firm low left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area into the right corner of the net.
Two goals, dozens of well-placed passes, some outrageous pieces of dribbling and plenty of hard work in defence. Pretty much the perfect performance, then, and one that gives weight to the suggestion that, right now, nobody is better in his position than Isco.
It’s been a long time coming, because until recently it looked as though Isco was doomed to never truly fulfil his undoubted talent.
After making his name as a rising star with Malaga in the 2012/13 season, he earned a big-money move to Real Madrid and quickly impressed, scoring a winner on his debut.
But then he stagnated, struggling to oust big names like Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez from the starting line-up and regularly being asked to play out of position on the wing, otherwise cutting a forlorn figure on the bench, wondering when his chance to shine would ever come.
But last spring, just when it appeared that he would have to leave Real Madrid to find more regular football elsewhere, he was given a chance to show his true ability at a key moment: at the end of April, with Madrid in contention for the Champions League and La Liga titles, Bale went down injured.
Enter Isco. For the remainder of the season he was majestic, providing decisive moments week after week as his team won eight of their nine remaining games to finish the season with their first league and European double for more than half a century.
What changed? Most importantly, his position.
Bale’s injury led to Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane abandoning the 4-3-3 formation he had previously employed, which mostly required Isco to play in a wide position — not really suiting his game-changing strengths — whenever he got into the team.
But that system rarely looked convincing, and Zidane made the crucial move to adopt a 4-4-2 shape including a narrow midfield “diamond”, with defensive-minded Casemiro flanked by ball-playing Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and Isco at the tip.
This suited everyone and it particularly suited Isco, who finally had the freedom to roam all over the pitch rather than being restricted to treading a path up and down a touchline.
Crucially, Cristiano Ronaldo greatly benefitted, receiving magical pass after magical pass from his repositioned teammate as he finished the season with 16 goals in 10 games, many of which came directly from Isco’s assists.
After starting the new season in similarly sublime form and now shining on the international stage, it’s fair to say Isco is in the form of his life with his confidence sky-high, and his challenge now is to stay at that level.
His elevated status within the Madrid ranks should make that possible, because he now has earned sufficient respect to be played in his preferred position.
Despite all his assets — control, dribbling, vision, passing, timing runs into the penalty area and finishing — perhaps his greatest weakness is a lack of pace, and this makes playing on the wing less than ideal because he is playing further away from goal and can be exposed by speedy opponents.
In the middle, though — or, at least, with a starting position on the flank but with the freedom to cut inside — he is finally showing exactly what he can do.
And it turns out, as many people suspected all along, few other players, if any, do it better.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.