When playmaking prodigy Isco joined Real Madrid in 2013, the then 21-year-old was earmarked as a long term star in the Spanish capital.
Arriving for €30m, as Real staved off strong interest from Manchester City to land their target, the midfielder penned a five-year deal and quickly justified the heated jostle for his services.
But fast forward to the present, and Isco’s future at the Bernabeu appears incredibly hazy. The playmaker hasn’t started a league match since late the 5-1 loss to Barcelona in October, and remains on the periphery as manager Santiago Solari persists with other options.
Isco was handed an opportunity overnight as his team slumped to yet another loss – a 1-0 Copa Del Rey defeat to Leganes who currently sit 13th in La Liga. The Spaniard played 68 minutes before being hauled off, but the reaction to his substitution was particularly telling.
As he trudged off the park, Solari didn’t even look at the midfielder let alone embrace him or thank him for his efforts – a remarkably frosty reception as he plonked himself back on the bench.
Things haven’t been rosy at Real since the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, and the three-time reigning Champions League holders have struggled. Former Spain coach Julen Lopetegui failed to get his team firing and was sacked in October, before Solari was handed the reins.
The Argentine hasn’t managed to improve things dramatically, with his team already ten points off the pace in La Liga after 19 matches. Isco has found himself ostracised, with a range of players from Real Madrid Castilla – their ‘B team’ – often used ahead of him.
"It is made up of those who play and those who do not play," Solari said after opting to throw on Dani Ceballos instead of the Spanish international when searching for a goal against Betis over the weekend.
"In no way is there anything personal. The squad is what it is and we all do our best, I as a coach, and everyone can play, they are all part of the squad."
When Isco arrived at Real, the words of his new manager Carlo Ancelotti were telling – and now loom large as he continues to warm the bench.
"I can just talk about the quality of this player, he is very good," Ancelotti said.
"Spain’s Under-21 side has fantastic players and he is the one with the most quality of all. He could play for any team."
And yet, he’s not getting a game in a Real team that have struggled for goals and face an ongoing injury crisis this season.
" Isco is crazy, for me, the best player in the world," Van der Vaart told Marca.
"But he always has problems with coaches. Zinedine Zidane never trusted him 100 per cent. When Ajax play Madrid, I’ll see if he starts. If he is not, I’m going home."
But regardless of his lack of first team opportunities at Real, its remains unlikely Isco will leave the club this month - his last opportunity to do so this season.
The midfielder is so highly rated in fact, that its reported the 26-year-old has a whopping €700m release clause in his contract.
He would demand a hefty price tag, meaning there are few clubs in world football who could afford to prize him away from Real, despite his lack of impact this season. Manchester City were thought to be keen to reprise their interest, but ESPN FC reported this week that the Premier League champions aren’t keen on the midfielder.
Chelsea and Arsenal have both been linked, but the former recently spent big on Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic and the latter are unlikely to have the funds available.
Juventus loom as another potential destination, however, Isco is unlikely to land in Turin with the Serie A side to inevitably announce the signing of Gunners playmaker Aaron Ramsey on a free transfer.
Right now, Isco looks set to wallow on the bench at Real, with his future unclear. But according to ex-teammate Juan Mata there’s nothing much he can do other than put his head down and work hard.
"I appreciate Isco, as I met him at Valencia and I saw all the talent he had," Mata said in an interview with Radio Marca.
"The only thing you can do in situations like this is to continue working, to not lose confidence in yourself and to try to take advantage of opportunities when you have them."
"In the end, talent always stands out and he has plenty of it."
"I send a very strong hug from here and I’m sure that, in the end, things will improve."