Isco speculation a taste of what's to come if Real Madrid lose to PSG
While the Champions League round of 16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain is dominating the news agenda at Real Madrid, it appears the club are positioning themselves ahead of what could be a big shake-up next summer with Isco reportedly one to depart.
With Madrid already 19 points adrift of runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona, and embarrassingly eliminated from the Copa del Rey by lowly neighbours Leganes, captain Sergio Ramos has called the PSG the team's "last card" to turn around their season.
But the visit of in-form Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and company also brings the possibility of another low in what has been an awful 2017-18 so far, with coach Zinedine Zidane having more or less admitted that his own future could be decided over the 180 minutes in Madrid and Paris.
Into this context comes Tuesday's report on TV show El Chiringuito claiming that Zidane has told club president Florentino Perez that he wants Isco sold next summer.
Host Josep Pedrerol, who is well connected at the Bernabeu, claimed that, having backed Isco over on loan rival James Rodriguez last summer, Zidane had been disappointed with the Andalusian's performances and wanted him gone. That was, of course, assuming the manager is still in the job next season.
Although there were no quotes from Zidane or Isco in the report, it was widely picked up in the local media and even made it onto the cover of AS on Thursday morning, with the paper adding the detail that Madrid would move for Chelsea's Eden Hazard as a replacement.
Inside, AS also ran a story with "five teams who could try and take Isco" -- naming Manchester City, Liverpool, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Arsenal as potential destinations for the 25-year-old. While Mundo Deportivo linked Isco with Anfield and maintained that Liverpool had a €150 million bid for Marco Asensio turned down last summer.
A debate over Isco's position at the Bernabeu has been bubbling under the surface during recent weeks, especially as he lost his regular starting position with the "BBC" of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo all now fit and available for Zidane.
It is striking that despite having previously been a key member of the side, he has started just two of the team's last seven La Liga games -- and those were a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo and 1-0 home defeat to Villarreal, in which he was replaced before the end both times.
In late January, Mundo Deportivo claimed that Isco had already made up his mind to leave should he be left out of the XI against PSG, with the reporter pointing to his angry reaction when being substituted by Zidane late in the recent 2-1 home Copa del Rey defeat to Leganes.
The situation is quite similar to just 12 months ago, when Isco was also spending a lot of time on the Bernabeu bench. The speculation then was more acute given that he was inside the last 18 months of his contract, and there was even talk that he was set to move across the Clasico divide and sign for Barcelona.
In the end though, of course, Isco was feted for his role in Madrid's Champions League and La Liga double last season and a new bumper deal was agreed with Madrid in September, tying him to the club until 2022.
This week's gossip actually came after Isco gave his best performance for a while when coming off the bench at Levante last weekend. After replacing Bale with 24 minutes remaining he helped improve the team's fluidity, and appeared to have won the game by hammering home a shot with time almost up -- only for a defensive shambles to allow another late goal as fourth-placed Madrid dropped two more points.
Whether or not Zidane or Isco have changed their minds about their long-term futures in recent days is a moot point anyway. The latest flurry of stories are mostly interesting in what they reveal about the general mood at the club -- with optimism not high a week ahead of PSG's visit.
Should the defending champions exit the Champions League in the round of 16 for the first time since 2010, the only thing to play for over the rest of the season will be a top four spot and qualification for Europe next year.
The next few months would then be filled with plenty of speculation about who will pay for such a disastrous season. This week's claims around Zidane and Isco could be just a taste of what is to come.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan