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Pressure is a fixation of modern football, the ability to come out on top in crunch moments. If you fail you are a bottler, succeed and some excessive superlative is given to you.
Yet, pressure presents itself in different ways. The pressure a manager like Lee Bowyer feels, fighting the tide of the cataclysmic wave that is Charlton owner Roland Duchâtelet, is different to that for players as they cross the white line.
In a world away from The Valley, Dani Ceballos is dealing with this pressure. The Real Madrid and Spain Under-21 international has been the stand-out performer at this summer’s European Under-21 Championships, earning rave reviews and being touted for a €50 million move away from the Santiago Bernabéu.
After an €18 million move from Real Betis to the capital in 2017, Ceballos has been by no means a permanent fixture and the return of Zinedine Zidane has only exacerbated this, with the 22-year-old making just three appearances following the Frenchman’s return. A disappointing end seeing as the season had started brightly with Julen Lopetegui trusting Ceballos in his midfield three.
Which means Ceballos, Spain’s captain, comes into the tournament without a solid run of game time and faces being out of sorts on the international stage. This represents a peculiar, neo-pressure. A player who is by no means a star for Los Blancos and only has a maximum of five matches at this tournament to make his mark but has the potential to be a talisman for a number of teams.
“In the national team I feel like an important player, I feel key,” Ceballos said. His importance is undoubted for this highly talented crop of Spanish stars coming through. Fellow Madrid player Jesús Vallejo, Napoli’s Fabián Ruiz and Carlos Soler of Valencia are all quality players with huge potential. And Ceballos stands above them, having dragged the team from the doldrums of an opening 3-1 defeat to Italy to a semi-final against the French.
Two goals and two assists might not read as a fantastic return but it is how the fulcrum of the side sits with him. Operating between the lines, Ceballos is a fantastic dribbler, an eye for a cutting pass and can shoot with excellent accuracy from outside the box. Both his goals at the tournament, against Italy and Poland, have come from 25 yards. Both struck with whip, venom and a release of frustration and talent kept subdued through the spring.
Attacks travel through him, the man who completes the circuit, operating in a position that benefits him, much more than that of Madrid’s 4-3-3 and ‘expecting Cristiano Ronaldo to do something, still’ tactic. As Ceballos is the conductor of Spain’s electric attack, Madrid have failed to recognise that they must find a new one.
According to the Madrid publication AS, Zidane doesn’t envisage Ceballos in his plans for next season to which the midfielder’s blunt response came: “No problem, boss – I didn’t want to carry on working with you, either.”
Ceballos appears bullish, a player whose career could have panned out so differently. Released by Sevilla due to a bronchitis issue, he eventually ended up at arch-rivals Real Betis and accelerated through the Andalusians’ set up. A season in the Segunda División gave a then 18-year-old Ceballos the opportunity to cement himself as a first-team player as Betis returned to La Liga at the first time of asking.
Ceballos form upon his return to the top flight didn’t go unnoticed. Real Madrid were rivalled by both Barcelona and Liverpool for his signature, but just two years on it appears as if he is on his way out of the club.
“If I leave I want to play for a team where I feel important. The most important thing for a player is to have the coach’s confidence,” he said.
The idea of importance crops up again. Ceballos wants real pressure, he wants to step up in the 88th minute against a former club to score a free kick, sealing a 2-1 win as he did in January. And as Betis fans jeered their former son, “Ceballos, comepipas” in reference to his time warming the Madrid bench with nothing to do but eat sunflower seeds, he enacted the last laugh, the expression of importance in the face of pressure.