Ceballos needs storm clouds to clear over Real Madrid before he can shine
"Surely we have all made that mistake," Real Betis coach Quique Setien said on Friday, bringing his answer to an end.
Real Madrid humiliated Deportivo La Coruna two days later. Nacho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale all scored twice in a 7-1 victory on Sunday. Dani Ceballos was not in the squad due to an ankle injury. Even if he was fit, he would probably not have played. Ceballos -- who joined from Real Betis in the summer -- has not even made the bench for a La Liga match since Dec. 9. Madrid hosted Sevilla that day and had scored five goals without reply when Ceballos came on with 19 minutes remaining.
"Sometimes you have to make decisions when you are 21 that are not correct," Setien began. "I am seeing a case similar to Dani Ceballos, who had the thrill of Real Madrid. Now we see his face, and he's sad. Forget about the safe money. What you want is to play and grow."
Setien mentioned Ceballos on Friday amid reports that Fabian Ruiz -- the latest talented midfielder to emerge from the Betis academy -- is a target for Madrid. He sought to use Ceballos' lack of minutes in the Spanish capital to dissuade Fabian from leaving. Setien is an idealist when it comes to setting up his team. Betis are attacking and expansive. They pass, pass and pass. But he shows a more devious side when journalists and cameras gather in front of him.
It was not the first time that Ceballos has been a topic of conversation in Setien's news conferences this month. "He wants to come back to Betis," Setien declared earlier in January. It was a curious statement. The Spanish federation prohibits players from returning to a club they have already left on a permanent basis during the same season. Even if Ceballos wanted to return to form part of Setien's project at Betis, bureaucracy would prevent it.
The ball was in Ceballos' court in this one-sided game of statement tennis. Setien fired a mixture of jibes and compliments at Ceballos, who didn't appear to realise that he had signed up for the match. He ultimately responded the way modern footballers respond: with a curt message on Instagram. "I'm happy," said the message, garnished with a winking emoji and a picture of Ceballos in a Madrid shirt, poised with the ball at his feet.
Ceballos arrived at Madrid in the summer as the most exciting acquisition in a crop of talented youngsters. Many people viewed Ceballos, Marco Asensio, Marcos Llorente and Theo Hernandez as an indication that Madrid were consolidating their position as the best team in Europe. That Ceballos allegedly turned down Barcelona in favour of a move to Madrid further strengthened the perception that, in the medium-term at least, Los Blancos would dominate.
But that has not happened. Barcelona are sauntering to the title, and Ceballos been unable to force his way in to the Madrid team. Only Mateo Kovavic -- who spent much of the season injured -- and Borja Mayoral have played fewer minutes than Ceballos.
"He's not going to have a secondary role -- quite the opposite -- but everything takes time," Zinedine Zidane said at the end of September, at which point Ceballos had barely spent half an hour on the pitch in a Madrid shirt. "Dani is going to play, for sure," he added, "I'm happy with him."
He has been in this position before. Uruguayan coach Gus Poyet rationed Ceballos 202 minutes across 11 matches during his unproductive spell in the dugout at Betis. Poyet acknowledged that he might have been wrong to leave out Ceballos, before going defensive and insisting that with him in the side, Betis slid further down the league.
Ceballos is mature, according to those who know him. He has surprised people with his eagerness to learn about how the club works on a day-to-day level, right down to the bureaucratic details. The same report in El Pais named Sergio Ramos and Isco as Ceballos' "godparents" in the squad. He can certainly learn from Isco -- and not only because both players possess a similar range of technical, caramel-coated skills. Isco had to wait to consolidate his place as a first-team regular, and Ceballos will have to do the same.
In football, people often draw permanent conclusions from temporary situations. Ceballos has barely played in his first six months at the club. That is not to say that he is not good enough or that he won't establish himself in the future. Ceballos has been a victim of circumstance. Madrid have stuttered in the first half of the season, causing Zidane to rotate his team less in an attempt to find rhythm. When the storm clouds clear over the Bernabeu, Ceballos will begin to shine.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93