Despite there being a full European programme this midweek featuring seven Spanish teams, as well as a Copa del Rey tie between two La Liga sides, there is only one subject dominating the Spanish football conversation at present: what the hell’s going on with Isco?
The Real Madrid star’s stock has fallen so far since Santiago Solari took charge of the side that he was left out of the matchday squad altogether for Real Madrid’s 2-0 Champions League win in Roma on Tuesday night, despite being fully fit.
He hasn’t started a game for Real Madrid since the humiliating 5-1 defeat to arch-rivals Barcelona last month, the match which heralded the end of Julen Lopetegui’s brief and turbulent time as manager. Under Solari, he has only made three substitute appearances, totalling 78 minutes.
So what has caused him to fall from favour so dramatically? After all, just a few months ago he was a star of the side who had just won their fourth Champions League title in five seasons.
Is it that he has fallen out with Solari? There have been reports of tension between Isco and the new coach, with some suggesting that the reason he was omitted from the squad to face Roma was due to a ‘lack of respect’ shown towards the manager.
It is believed that they got off on the wrong foot, with Isco openly questioning Solari’s methods in a training session early in the Argentine manager’s tenure.
In public, Solari denied that there was any rift between the two, saying that the decision to leave him out was taken for purely footballing reasons.
It seems pretty implausible. Surely a player of Isco’s quality, who by the manager’s own admission was fully fit, is worth having on the bench at least for such a potentially tricky away European tie?
But maybe he is not as fit as his manager claims. There have been reports that it is in fact Isco’s physical condition that Solari has taken exception to. When he took charge, Isco had not long returned from a bout of appendicitis. His four-week absence coincided with a dreadful run of form for Real Madrid, who failed to win any of the five games played during his illness, losing four times.
Isco’s absence was seen as a key reason for Madrid’s struggles at the time, and it was felt that Lopetegui rushed him back in an attempt to change the fortunes of the team. His comeback failed to have the desired impact, and his hastened return likely contributed to his subsequent poor performances and lack of match sharpness.
But his poor fitness has also been attributed by some to a lack of effort in training since Solari’s arrival. Marcelo’s post-game comments that “you have to work” were stark. Asked what advice he would give to Isco, the Brazilian added: “I’m not saying that he doesn’t, but that’s how football is; you see where you are failing and make it better.”
The implication was clear, the damage done. For a long-standing teammate to publicly suggest he is not working hard enough is not a good look.
Of course, another potential reason for Isco’s omission could simply be that he doesn’t fit into Solari’s plans. So far, the new boss has preferred Dani Ceballos in midfield and a front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Lucas Vázquez, and on the whole it is working for him – Saturday’s surprise 3-0 defeat to Eibar aside, Real Madrid have won every game since he replaced Lopetegui.
If they are getting results, is there any reason to change that?
One absolute certainty in all of this is that he will now be the subject of interminable transfer rumours. If he continues to be left out, he may well wish to leave, and the club may well wish to sell.
There would be no shortage of suitors, and Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal have all already been credited with an interest.
Most Madrid fans would be sorry to see a popular, talented Spanish player depart, but if the current situation continues, there is unlikely to be any alternative.
At the age of 26, a player of Isco’s phenomenal ability should be entering his peak. He can’t afford to be languishing on the bench or in the stands. Whatever the reason for his absence from the side, whether it be a dispute with the manager, a lack of fitness or application, or simply the manager’s tactical preference, it needs to be resolved soon – either through détente with Solari, or by moving on to pastures new.
Dan Bridges is on Twitter