While losing Gareth Bale through injury is a blow for Real Madrid, Liverpool supporters should not jump too high for joy ahead of Wednesday’s big Champions League clash at Anfield with the former Tottenham Hotspur man’s likely replacement capable of causing just as many problems.
The Welshman will not face Brendon Rodgers’ side owing to a gluteal muscle injury that he suffered on international duty and that kept him on the bench for Madrid’s 5-0 victory over Levante at the weekend. As the scoreline suggests, however, the European champions did not struggle in his absence and Isco, the man who got a rare start in his place, produced a man of the match performance.
Madrid confirmed Bale’s injury setback on Monday and he could be sidelined for the next two weeks, meaning he will also miss Saturday’s Clásico clash against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu. One man’s loss is another man’s gain and in Isco, Carlo Ancelotti has a player who is hungry to take his chance and eager to show he is capable of being a regular start in a star-studded team.
Ancelotti has showed so far that the former Malaga man, who was linked with moves to Liverpool and Manchester City over the summer, is not currently part of his first-choice eleven but is a crucial cog in his squad given the amount of silverware Madrid is aiming for this term.
Nothing will dislodged the ‘BBC’ of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in the regular three-pronged attack while the £71 million fee for Colombian World Cup star James Rodriguez ensures his starting role alongside Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield.
Isco, as well as fellow talented Spanish youngster Asier Illarramendi, were brought in for a big fee last summer but although Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso moved away from the Spanish capital this year, the likes of James and Kroos came in and the Spanish duo’s time on the pitch continued to be limited at the start of the campaign.
As the matches have built up, however, and the injuries and fatigue have already crept in, Ancelotti has started to utilise his whole squad and Isco has taken advantage. The Spanish under-21 international took a leading role in Madrid’s seventh consecutive win in all competitions in Valencia, scoring one and providing one assist to out-shine even the freescoring Ronaldo in the five-star showing and prompt calls for a more regular starting role.
‘Pressure on Ancelotti’ said Spanish sports newspaper ‘Marca’ in regards to Isco knocking on the door for a place in the Italian’s first eleven. ‘Isco offers talent and work to convince the coach’. A selection headache was in store for the former Chelsea manager but that headache is no longer with Bale out and Isco’s performance against Levante all-but guaranteeing him a starting role in his place.
He may not offer the raw pace that Bale does, nor the powerful strikes from long-distance, but he offers skill, creativity, energy, and a slightly more defensive output that the world’s most expensive player.
That is not to say he lacks pace, however, and he showed he is a key cog in Madrid’s famed counter-attack by breaking away and setting up Ronaldo’s second goal at the weekend. Nor is it to suggest his cannot pack a punch in the shooting stakes, as his first goal of the season on Saturday showed. While Bale works best with plenty of space, Isco can operate just as well with a lack of it, offering a new dimension to Madrid’s attacking play.
He will likely line up in a 4-4-2, one that has been implemented on rare occasions last season with success, and one that has been implemented more often this season when Madrid do not have the ball.
The former Malaga player should line-up on the right of a midfield four, with James on the left and Kroos and Modric in the middle. He was on the left of a midfield three at the weekend, with the Colombian occupying Bale’s position, but a tougher match on a European night at Anfield suggests Ancelotti will take a slightly more conservative approach.
QPR 2 Liverpool 3 player ratings
QPR 2 Liverpool 3 player ratings
1/22 QPR: Alex McCarthy
Did a solid job deputising for Rob Green – little he could do about any of Liverpool’s goals. 6/10
2/22 Nedum Onuoha
Hardly tested during the first half before going off with an injury. 6
3/22 Richard Dunne
At fault for the Reds’ opener – didn’t adjust his feet quickly enough and turned Sterling’s effort into his own goal. 5
4/22 Steven Caulker
Scored the match-winning goal… at the wrong end. Unfortunate, having worked hard to keep his side in touch as Liverpool threatened to run away with the game having gone 1-0 up. 5
5/22 Yun Suk-Young
Solid performance apart from losing concentration for Liverpool’s opener – defended capably and provided width down the left as QPR dominated the first half – should keep his starting place. 6
6/22 Mauricio Isla
A real threat down the right in the first half, forced to move backwards by Onuoha’s withdrawal at half-time. 6
7/22 Karl Henry
Bullish performance in the centre of midfield. Bullied his more illustrious opponents at times. 7
Influential for 60 minutes before going off injured – his departure coincided with Liverpool taking control of the game. 7
9/22 Leroy Fer
Should have given his side the lead in the first half as he twice hit the bar with great chances – aside from that played well. 6
10/22 Bobby Zamora
The captain’s physicality was a threat to the Liverpool defence right from the opening moment – laid on chances for Austin and Fer that should have been taken. 8
11/22 Charlie Austin
A threat to the Liverpool defence throughout, could have got himself on the score sheet, but did well to set up Vargas’ first. 7
12/22 Liverpool: Simon Mignolet
Another shaky performance – made some good saves but looked extremely vulnerable at times. 5/10
13/22 Glen Johnson
Looked a little rusty on his return to the starting XI from injury – helped prevent a goal with some last ditch defending in the first half and crossed for Dunne’s own goal. 6
14/22 Martin Skrtel
The enforcer of Liverpool’s back four was completely bullied by Zamora and can count himself fortunate (or unfortunate) if he keeps his starting place against Real Madrid on Wednesday. 5
15/22 Dejan Lovren
Unable to handle the inspired Zamora until he went off – unconvincing. 5
16/22 Jose Enrique
Caused a lot of trouble by Isla in the first half – unable to impact the game going forward. 5
17/22 Jordan Henderson
One of few Liverpool players who could be reasonably satisfied with his performance. His mixture of effort and quality helped to keep the Reds in the game as they struggled in the first half. 7
18/22 Emre Can
Making his first Premier League start, the German U21 international failed to stamp his authority on the game and was replaced by Joe Allen soon after the hour mark. 5
19/22 Raheem Sterling
It wasn’t his finest game, but his decisive impact speaks for itself. Played a part in all of Liverpool’s goals and can now looking forward to taking on Real Madrid on Wednesday. 7
20/22 Steven Gerrard
Pushed into a more advanced role in the first half, he was anonymous until almost giving his side the lead just before the break – a bit better when dropping deeper in the second half. 5
21/22 Adam Lallana
Gradually working his way back to full fitness, the England man struggled to get involved during the first half but his shot did lead to Balotelli’s big chance. Went off soon after the hour mark. 5
22/22 Mario Balotelli
He didn’t deserve to be on the winning side. Spurned two great opportunities and generally didn’t look after possession very well. 4
Isco’s play may be all about his attack but something key in his integration into his manager’s thoughts is his improvement in defence, too. Knowing that he will not break through Madrid’s ‘BBC’, nor force Ancelotti to change from his favoured 4-3-3 to play behind a lone striker, the Italian has not hidden his thoughts about Isco having to help out defensively. It was something drilled into Di Maria with great success, although the Argentine already enjoyed a greater work ethic in tracking back and helping his team.
Now Isco has his greatest chance to show that he can be a crucial player for Madrid from the start, and not just from the bench, with matches at Liverpool and potentially against Barcelona on Saturday night, too. He has already provided four assists, the most in Madrid’s squad alongside Toni Kroos, who has started eight games compared to Isco’s three in La Liga and will be hungry for more as he looks to live up to the hype that he achieved at the start of last season before Bale’s big-money arrival forced him down the pecking order.
It is four years to the week that Bale scored his stunning hat-trick for Tottenham against Inter Milan at the San Siro, a performance that took him from a star on the Premier League stage to the European, and probably put him on Madrid’s radar. That kind of talent will be a miss for Madrid at Anfield but Rodgers, a self-confessed fan of the Spanish passing game, will know all too well that Isco will pose a similarly big threat on Wednesday night.
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