Like copper coins and keys detached from their key ring, it must be easy to slip through the cracks at Real Madrid.
With a global reputation and more money than sense, Madrid have historically been able to take their pick of the world’s finest footballers.
This is all well and good in many respects; the club have been graced by many all-time legends and 14 European Cups suggest it’s hardly the worst strategy around.
But, with the fans always clamouring for another shiny new toy like a spoilt kid at Christmas, there’s been plenty of collateral damage in the form of talented footballs that have wasted their careers at the Bernabeu.
Dani Ceballos seemed destined to follow that path. Signed from Real Betis in 2017, injuries and inconsistencies have limited his impact at Madrid.
A half-decent loan spell at Arsenal followed, with the Spaniard’s laissez-faire demeanour and classy technique saw him become a cult hero during the early Arteta era.
And, as 2023 emerges from its embryonic weeks, Ceballos has produced one of the best assists you’re likely to see all year.
Madrid were coasting to victory in their Club World Cup semi-final against Al Ahly, toying with their opponents like the family cat humouring a half-mauled mouse, when Ceballos received possession and hit the accelerator button.
A swift pass zipped into the feet of Rodrygo, who delayed his return pass until his team-mate had motored past him before pulling off an impish backheel.
But Ceballos wasn’t about to be outdone. After rolling the ball underneath his foot, dragging a hapless defender with him, the midfielder executed an even-better backheel into Rodrygo’s path.
It was a pass so perfectly weighted that Ceballos couldn’t have put the ball in a better spot if he’d stopped the game, picked it up and placed it on the ideal spot. Rodrygo did the appropriate thing and stuck it in the net.
Ceballos has shown his class, leadership qualities, impressive energy and fitness levels, and his capacity to do the defensive dirty work. He has forced his way into Ancelotti’s midfield rotation.
Against Valencia recently, the Bernabeu chanted Ceballos’ name, asking him to stay: “Ceballos, Quedate”. It seems the Bernabeu faithful will get their wish.
The player is expected to see a salary raise with his new contract, but the financials were never a hurdle for club or player. The midfielder has earned his latest contract proposal and has made his intentions clear over the last few weeks.
“There is no bigger club than Madrid,” Ceballos said. “I have four months left on my contract, but I am going to give everything to show that I want to stay here. I have to grit my teeth and show that I have the level to play here.”
With Luka Modric and Toni Kroos starting to succumb to the passage of time, Ceballos has certainly timed his rise to prominence well.
Arsenal fans who remember his ridiculousness at the Emirates will be heartened by his current trajectory; there’s little chance of Ceballos falling through the cracks with assists like these.
By Michael Lee