Illarramendi is not comfortable as a central midfielder, and he has shown that for the last few months. Since his disastrous match against Borussia Dortmund, Illarramendi lacked the confidence needed to play well and was escorted by Xabi Alonso, something that did not exactly help him either.
But yesterday, Ancelotti decided to play him in his natural position, the defensive midfielder. In Alonso's spot. And he rose to the occasion and performed brilliantly. WhoScored rated him as the best player on the field with an 8.3 score. He just missed 6 passes out of the 78 he tried, and he also controlled the tempo of the game brilliantly. Sure, his defensive positioning is not as great as Alonso's. But this will be a good game to gain some momentum for Saturday's Champions League Final.
Ancelotti himself was pleased about Illarra's performance.
Illarra has good chances of being in the starting XI next Saturday. I still have one week to make the best decision. He's played well, with intensity and good rhythm, I'm happy with his performance. Khedira has played well the last two games but right now Illarramendi is the most likely starter.
Illarramendi was signed to replace Xabi Alonso and he will likely need to do that in the biggest match he can possibly play: the Champions League Final. Saturday's game against Espanyol did not have Atlético's rhythm, and that's why there are still some concerns about his ability to survive to Koke, Gabi, Tiago and company.
But he's shown he's capable of taking care of business. He might not be able to dominate that kind of game just yet, but all he needs to do is to replace Xabi Alonso successfully. Ancelotti and Illarramendi now have one week to prepare the Champions League Final. The young midfielder could possibly use some advice by Xabi Alonso as well.