MOSCOW (Reuters) - Spain’s turbulent World Cup campaign, which has witnessed the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui plus three underwhelming performances and only one victory, has at least had one saving grace in the emergence of a new leader in Isco.
The playmaker has delivered lively displays in all of Spain’s games, most impressively taking the team by the scruff of the neck during their chaotic 2-2 draw with Morocco in their final Group B game, including scoring their first equaliser.
After the game he acted as the team’s spokesman, clearly stating that their turbulent performance was way below what they are capable of.
“Once again we came out looking doubtful and that can’t keep happening. Right now is when the life or death games start, we can’t keep giving away goals, we need to focus. We have to step things up a gear,” he said.
Isco’s impressive attacking displays and his assertive character have not gone unnoticed in the Spanish dressing room.
“I don’t think he needs to do anything more, he is already one of our leaders,” said defender Dani Carvajal on Thursday.
“When the game gets ugly, he is the one who takes charge and leads the way, he never hides. You can’t really ask him to do any more. He is having a spectacular World Cup and I hope he keeps playing this well.”
With David Silva and Andres Iniesta showing only sparks of their usual quality, Spain will again look to Isco for inspiration in Sunday’s last 16 clash against hosts Russia.
Isco’s superb displays at the World Cup should come as little surprise after his show-stopping performance in Spain’s 3-0 win over Italy in qualifying and his hat-trick in their 6-1 hammering of Argentina in March.
What is surprising, though, is that the supremely talented midfielder is playing his first major international tournament aged 26, despite moving to Real Madrid in 2013 for 27 million euros after taking Spanish football by storm with Malaga.
Spain’s never-ending cast of exceptional midfielders, from Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva to Thiago Alcantara and Koke meant Isco has had to wait his turn to find his place in the national team.
But in Russia he has taken on new responsibility when Spain have needed it the most.
With Iniesta and Silva set to be playing their last major tournament and influential dressing room figures like Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos over 30, Isco’s coming of age also bodes well for Spain’s long-term future.
In the short term, though, Isco will look to continue his sparking form on Sunday at the Luzhniki stadium to ensure his side can return to the Russian capital on July 15 for the World Cup final.
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Neil Robinson