Isco torments Manchester United in Super Cup as Reds rue missed chance
Towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson's time at Manchester United, a senior club scout was dispatched to assess Isco, then at Malaga.
The player was watched several times, before the report was filed back that he wasn't considered good enough to move to Manchester United.
"He's good, but not quite quick enough and his head is too big for his body," was the verdict on the then 21-year-old playmaker.
Isco, however, continued to blossom.
Scouting is an inexact science. When watching other players in Spain, United also concluded that a young Fernando Torres wasn't what was required at Old Trafford. That opinion may have been revised during several star performances by Torres for Liverpool against United, just as they got it very wrong about Isco.
The balletic midfielder from the Brit-favoured seaside town of Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol was man of the match on Tuesday night as his Real Madrid side defeated United 2-1 in the European Super Cup in Skopje, Macedonia.
Madrid were so superior for the first hour that the game looked exactly what it was: the Spanish, European and world champions against the sixth best team in England last season.
Madrid's three midfielders who won praise from Jose Mourinho after the game played in the searing high summer heat which required two extra breaks for drinks.
"The midfield players of Real Madrid there are only one, there are no replicas," said the Portuguese.
"No replicas of Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, no replicas of Casemiro, so they are really solid and the way they move the ball makes it difficult."
Mourinho claimed that between the 20th and 40th minute of the match, Madrid played the perfect game.
His opposite, Zinedine Zidane, agreed.
"Against a rival like Manchester United, you need to control two or three aspects like the second ball in or playing the ball high," the Madrid coach said.
"We controlled that well. We didn't let them play. We didn't let them play. When we had the ball, we made the difference. We were cool, we took our time and we finish our chances at the right moment."
Zidane, who has averaged a trophy every 97 days in his time as the boss at the Bernabeu, will continue to aim for the top. Another Super Cup, in Spain against Barcelona, will be their next game on Sunday. Another World Club Championship will follow in Abu Dhabi in December.
They're expected to retain La Liga and the Champions League. If they fail to do both then Zidane, a club legend already as a manager as well as a player, will likely be on his way from a club that has averaged a manager each year for the last 30 years.
Madrid have their way of doing things and given how successful they've been recently, winning three of the last four European Cups, it's hard to dispute what they do. They sell their fringe players at premium prices, identify the best young talents from the football factory that is Spain and have always scouted well in South America, where the cultural connections are far stronger than any between England and the Latin world.
United have lesser aims, at least for now. The club remain the commercial trailblazers followed by every club, including Madrid. Their travelling support easily outnumbered that of Real Madrid's in Macedonia, just as it does every week domestically, but on the field the club still have significant work to do. They have spent heavily with marginal gains.
Mourinho enjoys significant support from fans, the players and the club. He's already won trophies, but while he sounded an optimistic note after the game, he also admitted: "I always say that the Champions League is one thing and the Europa League is another thing. The Champions League winner obviously has a different potential than the Europa League winner, so for us to come here and to do the positive things we did, I think we have to go with a good feeling and we have to start the Premier League on Sunday with a positive feeling and great experience."
United are still coming together. In the first half, they broke with three players against two Madrid defenders. Paul Pogba was in possession and Jesse Lingard, who has played more minutes than any other player in all games so far this season, asked for the ball. Pogba turned away from Lingard and attempted a shot on goal, which didn't come off. Lingard was rightly angered, yet you could understand Pogba's eagerness to make a mark in a high profile game.
Against Madrid, United played against a team where the majority have played and won three of the last four Champions League finals. United are inexperienced as a team -- the top scorer in the current squad, Juan Mata has only 36 goals.
Mourinho's manner is reflected by his team: pragmatic and mostly serious, with the occasional sunny outbreaks. He gave his loser's medal from Tuesday's game to a young fan in the crowd.
"Look, sometimes when I win I don't keep the medals, so imagine when I lose?" he said. "For me, the medal would go to some place in my house and for that kid it is the moon. For that kid with a Manchester United shirt, it is for sure something that he is going to keep and something he will never forget.
"For me, medals -- I repeat -- when I win, they don't mean much. Imagine what I lose?"
United will remain in the market for players that will improve the team until the end of the transfer window, with Mourinho's record of signings impressive. He praised his latest signing, Nemanja Matic, for his performance against Madrid.
United also hope that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a future at the club after he's finished his recuperation from a cruciate knee ligament injury. The Swede's finishing ability, star status and influence in the dressing room will be a welcome addition for a side coming together.
After a first-half football lesson on Tuesday, Mourinho's men improved after the break.
"We gave them the football they don't like, they could not dominate," he said. "We had a fight until the last seconds."
He pointed out that Casemiro's opening goal was offside and it's true that United missed defenders Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo and started with four at the back, despite playing three in their most recent preseason games.
But then Madrid could afford to leave Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in the world, on the bench for 82 minutes, and nobody leaving the stadium thought that United deserved even a draw.
On the banks of the Vardar River, the Super Cup was a bridge too far for Manchester United.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.