There were high expectations for Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez -- better known as Isco -- when Real Madrid paid €30 million to Málaga for the 21-year-old's services last summer. He was Carlo Ancelotti's first big signing, and a promising young player who is poised to become one of the next stars for the Spanish National Team.
Ancelotti gave him a chance to earn his place from the start, regularly handing Isco a spot in the starting XI for the first half of the season. Then in January, Ancelotti began playing Ángel Di María in a deeper midfield role to help with his team's defensive structure. Another youngster, Jesé, also started getting more playing time as Madrid shifted from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.
Much was made of Isco's defensive issues, and it didn't help that Di María excelled in the midfield, helping to stabilize Madrid's formation as Los Blancos went on a 19-match unbeaten run. Isco became the forgotten man of sorts, left to sit on the bench and pick-up minutes as a regular substitute.
Maybe it was too much, too soon on a big stage for Isco. Or perhaps he was being asked to play a role that didn't suit his talents.
In Madrid's second-leg Champions League quarterfinal match against Borussia Dortmund, Los Merengues were in trouble after allowing two first half goals. If Dortmund had scored once more, they could have forced extra time and gone on to a win. Then Ancelotti inserted Isco into the match at halftime, and he stepped up and had one his best performances of the season.
Isco didn't suddenly become a defensive wizard in the second half. Instead, he influenced the game by doing what Luka Modrić and Xabi Alonso couldn't in the first half: control the ball. He helped slow down Dortmund's attack, stifling all of the momentum they built up during the first half. It was an excellent performance, and proved Isco's value to Madrid by showing another dimension of his game.
With Cristiano Ronaldo unavailable for Wednesday's Copa del Rey final, Isco will likely be handed his second-straight start -- he was excellent against Almeria over the weekend, scoring a goal. Isco would play at left forward, a role normally filled by Ronaldo. While Isco is obviously not Ronaldo, the position is the ideal place for him to both make an impact and not have to be concerned with defensive responsibilities.
Ronaldo is never asked to track back to any great extent, so the Madrid midfield and defense are perfectly accustomed to playing around the space created by the Portuguese striker. Isco will be able to just slide right, play his attacking style and try to take advantage of Barca's mess of a defense and backup goalkeeper.
You really couldn't ask for a better situation for Isco to prove that he not only belongs with Real Madrid, but that he can help lead them to a trophy.