First it was Cristo Gonzalez. Then Dani Ceballos, and, finally, Brahim Diaz.
Santiago Solari burned through his substitutes and, even with the scored tied at 1-1 against Real Betis and Real Madrid’s crisis deepening, left Isco rooted to the bench.
The coach’s refusal to play the Spanish playmaker, who a few months ago was a fan favourite and essential piece of the puzzle for both club and country, nearly cost him dearly in Andalusia on Sunday night.
In the end luck favoured Madrid and despite Betis dominating in the second half, at one point having over 70 per cent possession, Dani Ceballos’s 88th minute free-kick earned Los Blancos a 2-1 win at the Benito Villamarin.
The victory takes them fourth, above Alaves, but still 10 points behind league leaders Barcelona. Madrid are in crisis and this narrow triumph does little to disguise that.
Solari’s evident dislike of Isco manifested itself again as the player was benched for the 11th time in 11 league games at the helm, despite the club’s injury crisis.
Even though Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio and Mariano Diaz were out, with Lucas Vazquez suspended too, the coach preferred to change to a 3-5-2 formation rather than incorporate him.
What at first looked like a move designed to humiliate Isco revealed itself as a tactical curveball for Betis, who struggled to handle a new-look Madrid in the opening period.
Madrid broke forward frequently and hit Betis on the counter. The hosts passed the ball about but as usual, didn’t have much forward thrust to go with their possession. Madrid were happy to defend as a unit when required, with every player back in their half, behind the ball at times.
Luka Modric broke the deadlock with a deflected strike into the top corner and the Croatian went close with another effort from similar distance.
Fede Valverde should have doubled Madrid’s lead which would have been a fair reflection on their performance, but fluffed his lines when sent through on goal, with a half-baked backheel failing to reach Karim Benzema.
The French striker was taken off with an injury at half-time and Solari snubbed Isco, preferring to hand B team forward Cristo Gonzalez his league debut.
As the tide turned in Betis’s favour, it looked like a matter of time before the hosts scored and Sergio Canales did so when played in by Giovani Lo Celso. Madrid hoped VAR would exculpate their defence but it only proved the midfielder was onside.
With the score level, it was surely time for Isco. But Ceballos was the next to come on, replacing Sergio Reguilon, with Nacho moving to left-back.
That was a snub for Marcelo too, one of the most creative defenders in world football, who was also left on the bench, helpless as Betis threatened to add to their lead.
When January signing Diaz replaced Valverde, it seemed like this was the hill Solari had chosen to die on.
Failing to win while leaving a player as good as unpicking defences as Isco on the bench would have generated such opprobrium among the media and supporters that Solari’s future would have been called into question.
But Ceballos saved the coach’s skin with his well-judged free-kick in the final stages. He lives to fight another day, but with no end in sight to the Isco saga, the situation may well repeat itself in the coming weeks.