There was an unnatural sense of excitement in the air as journalists whispered furiously amongst themselves at the end of an emphatic 3-1 win for Spain against Italy in the semifinals of the UEFA European U-21 Championship conducted in 2017. While the hero of the night undoubtedly was Atletico midfielder Saul who smashed a hat-trick under pressure, there was another youngster who had caught the eye with his spectacular performance, bewitching the audience with his tricks and mesmerising gameplay.
It was none other than 20-year-old Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos who made heads turn with his patience, vision and a perfectly weighted assist for Saul’s opener despite the presence of established players like Gerard Deulofeu, Héctor Bellerín. Italian midfielder Roberto Gagliardini lost his mind completely when nutmegged by Ceballos, going to the extent of knocking him to the ground in a desperate attempt to salvage some pride earning him a red card.
There was sadly no respite for the Italians despite being reduced to 10 men with the Betis midfielder unleashing a majestic run down the halfway line, which left 3 defenders dumbstruck drawing comparisons to legendary midfielder Andres Iniesta. While the La Rojas succumbed against Germany in the final at Krakow, Ceballos was named as the player of the tournament, setting the tone for a face-off between eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid in the summer transfer window.
Barcelona’s desire to sign a versatile midfielder who could ensure quality performances under pressure had led to the club’s pursuit of Ceballos after being rebuffed by Verrati early on.
“It would be convenient for (the signing) to be a midfielder who can play in all three positions, in the right, the left and in the middle. Playing in only one position would make it difficult for him to have regular time,” said technical secretary Robert Fernandez.
Fernandez was under immense pressure after failing to sign an effective replacement for illustrious midfielder Xavi which had reflected in the club’s performances. The signature of Ceballos right under the noses of the Los Blancos had the potential to emerge as a coup in the coming years. However, the opportunity to feature in a side consisting of Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and develop as a player under legendary footballer Zinedine Zidane proved too difficult to resist for the young midfielder who rejected numerous advances from the Catalonia based outfit.
Real Madrid were more than happy to sign a player who was hailed as a possible superstar and an effective replacement for Luka Modric, all for a paltry sum of €18 million. From the player’s point of view, a move to Real Madrid held the key to a lucrative career and an opportunity to establish himself as one of the greatest footballers on the planet in the coming years. However, the French manager certainly did not share the same confidence in his capabilities much to the disappointment of the youngster who was allotted an overall game time of only 899 minutes, the lowest amongst all players in his debut season. Ceballos was permitted an appearance in only 22 out of the total 62 matches played across the season, leading to extreme discontent and immense frustration after being forced to warm the bench on a constant basis.
While Mateo Kovacic and James Rodriguez have opted to seek fresh pastures in recent years, the ex-Betis midfielder resisted this temptation during the summer following the arrival of former Spain manager Julen Lopetegui as a replacement for outgoing manager Zinedine Zidane. The decision certainly seems to be vindicated after emerging as one of the key members of Lopetegui’s new look Real Madrid.
Ceballos has enjoyed 357 minutes of game-time already which is more than what even the likes of Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos can boast of indicating the manager’s confidence in him. The 22-year-old is brimming with new-found confidence which has been possible only because of the presence of Lopetegui, who has closely followed his development as a youngster over the years. ”The manager’s confidence is fundamental and I have had this feeling from the first moment. He gave me a confidence that Zidane couldn’t give me.”
At the same time, it is imperative for Ceballos to push on in pursuit of the goals which brought him to the Bernabeu. Lopetegui can be extremely harsh on those who fail to deliver the results expected and the 22-year-old will certainly be wary of that. The 2018-19 season has the potential to make or break his career at Real Madrid.
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