Newcomer Dani Ceballos takes his chance, showcases future at Madrid
Dani Ceballos had to wait for his first competitive Real Madrid start after joining the club last summer, but he immediately underlined his potential as a future star with a match-winning double in Saturday afternoon's 2-1 La Liga win at Alaves.
Just 10 minutes into his full debut, Ceballos received a cross from fellow youngster Marco Asensio, bounced off an Alaves defender and guided an excellent, low, 15-yard shot into the net.
Then after Alaves captain Manu Garcia had surprisingly equalised, it was Ceballos who stepped up and showed excellent anticipation and technique to fire in the loose ball after home keeper Fernando Pacheco had spilled a cross.
On an afternoon in which Gareth Bale was rested, Cristiano Ronaldo had six shots on goal without scoring (two hit the post), Ceballos was an unexpected hero for a Madrid side who have stumbled so far this season amid a flurry of injuries and suspensions and could have fallen even further behind early season leaders Barcelona.
"It was a good debut, a dream," Ceballos said afterward in the Mendizorroza mixed zone. "It really could not have gone better."
The €16.5 million summer signing from Real Betis only came into Zinedine Zidane's XI against La Liga's bottom side with Toni Kroos injured with a rib problem and Luka Modric resting a back issue ahead of Tuesday's Champions League trip to Borussia Dortmund.
Starting in Kroos' playmaking role to the left of midfield holder Casemiro in a 4-3-3 system, it was not just the goals that impressed from Ceballos. Through the first half, he was constantly involved in the game, working back in defence when required and connecting very well with fellow young Spaniards Isco and Asensio when in possession. There was a clear feeling that the 21-year-old is already on the same wavelength as his much-admired teammates.
"I'm happy for Dani," Zidane said at the postgame news conference. "He showed he was ready to play for us. Besides the two goals, he also played a good game. He is a kid who wants to learn, and he will get more chances to play. We got the three points thanks to his two goals."
There had previously been some doubts about whether Zidane was fully convinced about Ceballos, who joined last summer after he burst to prominence by being named Golden Player of the tournament as Spain finished runners-up at the European Under-21 Championship.
Barcelona were also said to be very interested in signing the Andalusian, making it even more important that Madrid's hierarchy ensured the deal went through this summer. At the end of last season, it had been thought that Ceballos was most likely to join Atletico Madrid, having impressed Diego Simeone with his displays against the Rojiblanco outfit in recent campaigns.
Long tipped for the top by pundits at Betis, he made his debut at 17 back in April 2014 and quickly established himself in the first team, even amid the usual turbulent times at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. Although just 20 when he joined Madrid, he had already played 105 senior games across Spain's Primera and Segunda Divisions, scoring seven goals and giving nine assists.
Before this weekend however, Ceballos had played just 31 minutes in Madrid's first nine games of the season in all competitions, not helped by a slight back injury picked up with Spain's U21s in early September and the fact that he must compete for a starting place with Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Isco and Mateo Kovacic.
"I have worked day to day for this moment," Ceballos said Saturday. "I never dropped my hands and got my reward. I will keep going now to make things difficult for Zidane."
Now he has taken his chance to show what he can do, and with Madrid's injury problems showing no signs of letting up, he should get more opportunities in the coming weeks. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his display Saturday was the personality showed to impose himself on the game in difficult circumstances, when other more experienced players were having difficulties.
"There is no better way to make your first start for Real Madrid," AS pundit Alvaro Benito Villar wrote afterward.
"Ceballos played a truly great game at Mendizorroza. Not just for the obvious, the two goals, which Los Blancos needed, but also for his hard work and buildup play. He showed tremendous personality, and neither the Madrid badge nor shirt weighed on him."
Saturday demonstrated that Dani Ceballos can be decisive when Madrid need him. These are early days yet in his Bernabeu career, but there is plenty more to come from the young midfielder.
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