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The Rise of Dani Carvajal

The Spaniard has grown into the best right back on the planet

Athletic Club v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

It was May 5th, 2015, in Turin, Italy. Real Madrid were competing in the first leg of the 2014-2015 UEFA Champions League semi-final against the Italian champions Juventus. After conceding early in the match through its former player and now current Madridista, Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid found its equalizer through Cristiano Ronaldo 20 minutes later.

With an away goal in tow, the result was looking positive for the Spanish giants. However, in the second half, a reckless challenge from Real’s young right back Dani Carvajal handed Juventus a penalty that would help propel the opposition through to the final. Of the 22 starting players on the pitch for that semi-final, only one looked out of place: Dani Carvajal. The Spaniard looked completely out of sorts over two legs in what was the lowest point of his young career.

It’s a loss that stings in the back of fans’ minds as we wondered what could have been. Although Dani had shown tremendous improvement from the beginning of his career, the matches with Juventus showed that he still had a very long way to go.

Youth Career and Loan to Bayer Leverkusen

SSC Napoli v Bayer Leverkusen - Pre-Season Friendly
A young Carvajal attemps to make his mark in Germany
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Flashback to when the life of Dani Carvajal began in the suburbs of Madrid. Joining La Fábrica at a young age, Carvajal quickly worked his way up through the ranks of Madrid’s academy. At the age of 18, he joined Castilla, where he impressed for two seasons before being sold to Leverkusen with a relatively cheap buy-back clause.

While at Leverkusen, Carvajal’s career took off. After locking down the starting role at the German club in September, Dani made 32 appearances at the club, helping Bayer to third in the Bundesliga, and just one point behind second-placed Dortmund.

At the end of the season the Spaniard was voted as one of the best right backs in the league. The 21-year-old managed to receive 16% of the fan vote for right back in the Bundesliga’s team of the season, and established himself as a bright talent of the future. His efforts did not go unnoticed, as just days after the transfer window reopened, Madrid bought back their promising youth product.

A Dream Fulfilled

Daniel Carvajal New Real Madrid Signing Press Conference
Dani Carvajal returns to fulfill his dream
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Upon his return to the Spanish Capital, Dani Carvajal was overjoyed at the opportunity he was given. During his introductory press conference, the talent stated that he was “the happiest man in the world”. Madrid now held in their hands their future at the right back position. He was seen as the replacement for Alvaro Arbeloa, someone who was 34 years old entering the season.

Towards the beginning of the season Dani Carvajal was often used as a Substitute, or not at all. However, as the season went on, he became a regular starter for the club, appearing more and more at the end of the campaign. The faith that new manager Carlo Ancelotti placed in him paid off, with Dani appearing in 45 matches in all competitions his first season at the club.

After playing in five-of-six Champions League knockout round matches against the likes of Schalke, Dortmund, and Bayern; Carvajal put in many note-worthy performances. His performance against Bayern Munich in particular was highly acclaimed, as he pocketed a then-world class Franck Ribery, who had just finished third in the Ballon D’or voting the year prior. For these impressive outings, Dani was rewarded with 120 minutes in the Champions League Final victory versus Inter-city rivals Atletico Madrid.

Despite his successful first season with the club, there were still concerns about his defensive ability in many matches. It was not a damning flaw, but still a problem nonetheless. The young defender still had a long way to go, but performed admirably for his age at a club that carries as much as public, political, and sporting pressure as Real Madrid.

Failure vs. Juventus and the Arrival of Danilo

Juventus v Real Madrid CF  - UEFA Champions League Semi Final
Carvajal’s reckless challenge concedes a penalty
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Now a full-time starter for the club, the now 22-year old Carvajal picked up where he left off the year before. Marauding down the right flank as if his life depended on it, while still occasionally having lapses defensively. He continued to improve, and even upped his attacking output from the year before.

Unfortunately for Dani, all fans will remember of him from that season will be his failure against Juventus. As the beginning of the article discussed, he looked completely out of place, and was a liability against Juventus. The Italian club went through to the final by the slimmest of margins; a margin that was greatly influenced by Carvajal’s mistakes.

The following Summer, Real Madrid purchased highly sought after defender Danilo from the Portuguese club FC Porto. Whether it was the inflation of the transfer market, or the high potential of the new Brazilian signing, the fact that Real Madrid were willing to spend 30 Million led many to believe that Carvajal was being replaced.

Real Madrid CF v SD Eibar - La Liga
Danilo replaces Carvajal during a match, and the first half of the 2015-2016 season
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Carvajal began to see fewer and fewer minutes, with Danilo starting nearly every La Liga match under Rafa Benitez. A mixture of political pressure to start the new expensive signing, and longterm injuries to the now backup Dani Carvajal made sure that the Spaniard did not see the pitch for long periods of time. Despite his horrible performances, Danilo retained his spot without question until new manager Zinedine Zidane took over.

Under his new manager, Carvajal did what Danilo was supposed to do: relegate his competition to the bench. The Spaniard played an integral role in the Frenchman’s side, helping to lead Madrid’s final push at the end of the season. After such a successful end to the season, it was heartbreaking for Madridistas to see his season end 51 minutes into the Champions League final he had played such a big role in reaching.

This injury was especially difficult for Carvajal due to Euro 2016 being played just weeks later. He had finally locked up a starting spot for Spain, and was fixing to play a key role in his International side’s title push until his injury.

Ascension to Best in the World

Real Madrid v Sevilla: UEFA Super Cup
Real Madrid celebrate after Carvajal scores the winner in the UEFA Super Cup
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

The first match of the season was a continuation of the year before, and foreshadowed the massive year Carvajal was about to have. In the 119th minute of the UEFA Super Cup, Carvajal scored the extra time winner against Sevilla to give Madrid its first trophy of the season.

But his performances had nowhere near reached their peak. Zidane’s high volume crossing tactics may bother many fans, but it’s an effective strategy when a team has fullbacks as great as Marcelo and Dani Carvajal. From his defensive position, the Spaniard has tallied 11 assists in all competitions, and is tied for 7th in La Liga in total assists while managing to create 35 goalscoring chances. When the stage is bigger it seems that Carvajal shines brighter. His killer crosses were instrumental in equalizing against both Napoli and Bayern Munich in each ties’ first leg.

There has not only been remarkable improvement in the attacking aspect of his game, but also defensively as well. The old issues of tracking back and one on one defending are no longer worries. In fact, there might not be any right back that Madridistas would trust defending that flank more. The hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach that he has taken while bossing the right flank show that he can be gritty and gracious at the time.

Real Madrid Celebrate After They Win Champions League Final
Dani Carvajal celebrates Real Madrid’s 11th Champions League title
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

This exact reason is why so many Madridistas are praying that Carvajal returns for the Champions League final against the team he had so many problems with just two seasons ago. His contributions on both sides of the ball would be critical for Madrid to make history as the only team to win back-to-back Champions League titles in the modern era.

Dani Carvajal has come a long way since his days at Castilla and Leverkusen, but an even longer way since the matches against Juventus. While the disastrous two legs with Juventus marked a low point in Dani Carvajal’s career, a potential return to play the same club could be the validation of his rise.

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