Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid have one foot in their third UEFA Champions League final in four years, thanks to yet another Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick in a 3-0 win over city rivals Atletico at the Santiago Bernabeu. The hat-trick was the 47th of Ronaldo’s amazing career.
There seems to be no limit to the Portuguese megastar’s ability, as he continues to display imperious goalscoring form year after year, cementing himself amongst the very best to have ever played the game. Ronaldo is just one goal away from his 400th for Los Blancos — his 399 so far have come in just 389 games. Astonishing.
All the spotlight will once again be on the former Manchester United forward in the Welsh capital, if his side finish the job at the Vicente Calderon next week. The occasion would perhaps be even more special for Gareth Bale though, in the city where he was born.
While Ronaldo will no doubt be the first name on the team sheet for Zidane, Bale’s place in the team is not 100 percent certain even if the Welsh superstar is fit.
There have been calls this week from Bale’s Real teammate Toni Kroos for the £86 million man to step up to the mantle of being Los Blancos’ talisman. The fact that Bale has only completed five games in the past six months and only scored nine goals in 26 appearances this season, however, suggests he’s not quite ready for Ronaldo to pass him the baton just yet with the Portuguese on 35 goals in 41 games this term.
Since he arrived at the Bernabeu in 2013, Bale has scored a respectable 67 goals in 149 games as a right-winger. Ronaldo, though, who like Bale plays as a wide forward but on the opposite flank, has scored 198 goals in 190 games — nine more than Lionel Messi.
Despite the fact Bale cost more money, the pair simply don’t match up individually despite Spanish journalist and football expert Guillem Balague claiming last year that Bale was now Real’s best player. Balague, though, was wrong: Bale has a long way to go before he can reach the levels of his current teammate.
It’s a devastating partnership when they’re playing together. Individually, Ronaldo and Bale are Real Madrid’s two best players, but without Bale both Ronaldo and the team play better. Last night’s 3-0 win over Atletico was as good as Los Blancos have played for a long time, and absent from proceedings was the club’s record signing Bale.
Yet the starting line-up Zidane picked was arguably the strongest side he can pick from — even if Bale was fit. The man who stepped in for the Welshman was Isco, who was ice cool on the ball as always and played a huge part in his side’s immaculate performance.
With Bale out, Real Madrid appeared to rely on pace much less. They kept the ball exceptionally well, having 63 percent of possession. Of course, if Bale had played, Real would have still dominated the ball, but the selection of Isco made Zidane’s game plan more flexible and less one-dimensional.
Ronaldo gained more freedom, roaming from the left to the right flank throughout the game, while Kroos and Modric’s control of the middle third gave Isco a free role off the left-hand side of the field. The Spaniard was popping up everywhere.
Isco was selected ahead of Colombian star James Rodriguez, who has been impressive of late, but Isco’s selection was fully merited as he shown last night. Real’s number 23 completed 98.2 percent of his passes, misplacing just one of the 57 passes he attempted. It was a near perfect display from Spanish international.
It shows there is no hierarchy in a football squad. James cost £65 million, more than double the amount Los Blancos paid for Isco, who cost just £30 million from Malaga in 2013 — the same year Bale signed for the club.
The former Malaga star has been in and out of the team, with Bale a permanent fixture in the XI when fit. Zidane, though, may now have to rethink this decision.
In fact, when Isco had a run in the team under Carlo Ancelotti in the 2014/15 season, it coincided with Real’s best form of that campaign. The Bernabeu side won 22 games in a row in all competitions between September 2014 and January 2015, with Bale missing 15 of these matches. In his place came Isco, who filled the void expertly as Real won all the games while averaging more ball possession.
Last night’s incredible display from Isco could well mean that he’s ousted Bale, as well as James, in Zidane’s pecking order to force himself into their strongest XI, despite the fact the pair costing a combined fee of £151 million. With Bale also expected to miss the second leg, next week’s game across the city could be the perfect chance for Isco to stake a genuine claim to start in Cardiff on the 3rd June.
As the old cliché goes, “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” There is, however, an ‘I’ in Isco, and after a somewhat up and down last three and a half years, the 25-year-old Spaniard is now reaching his full potential and becoming an increasingly important player for Real Madrid. It’s open for debate, but I believe Isco makes Los Blancos a better team.