If Dani Ceballos has an appearance fee or win bonus in his contract then the paltry 29 seconds he enjoyed on the pitch in Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Leganes might have provided a boost to his bank balance – but another dent to his confidence.
In entering the fray for Mateo Kovacic, and looking as busy as one possibly can in less time than it takes to boil a kettle, Ceballos was making only his seventh Liga appearance of the season. His first in over two months.
Things seemed so bright in the summer. He had just enjoyed one the best months of his career, reaching the Final of the European Under-21 Championship with Spain and winning player of the tournament.
Two weeks later, he completed a dream move to the champions. To date, he has started just two League matches.
Madrid’s poor form has made Zinedine Zidane reticent to stray too far from his favoured XI. But even outside the vacuum of a dismal League season, the protestations of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez were loud and clear. Subsequently neither are at the club.
In response, they ushered in a new age, bringing in young players like Ceballos and Theo Hernandez, while promoting Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral and Achraf Hakimi.
Injury relief aside, few on that list have made a substantial mark on the first team. And Ceballos has been rubbing shoulders on the bench with Gareth Bale or Marco Asensio, who have their own legitimate claims for more minutes.
Of course, this is Madrid. There are stars in every position, meaning you must play for your position.
We don’t know what happens on the training pitch every day, but on matchdays, 29 seconds isn’t enough to convince anyone of anything.
On his very first start for Los Blancos, he scored twice against Alaves to secure a 2-1 win away from home. A springboard to more frequent opportunities, one might think, with Zidane saying: “He showed he is ready to play for us, he’ll get more chances.” He didn’t start another game for a month.
Ceballos is not some 18-year-old kid who rose through the ranks with Castilla. He has been playing Liga football for years with Betis and impressed. He made his debut at just 17 and amassed over 100 appearances in his final three seasons at the club.
He shouldn’t expect to dislodge Luka Modric or Toni Kroos in midfield, but by February, he would’ve expected more than just two League starts, and he couldn’t hide his anger at the embarrassing substitution from his teammates, Dani Carvajal sympathising: “If someone doesn't play and they don't get angry it's even bad for the team. Wanting to play and show what you can do is good.”
Zidane may have since apologised, and with Modric now 32, perhaps he bides his time. On the other hand, he could go out on loan, with Betis boss Quique Setien happy to have him back for fear of his growth stunting.
Ceballos is a star of the future, but one of many at the club in search of more game time, and this is another problem Zidane cannot afford to ignore. Or else his Madrid career may be as fleeting as his appearance on Wednesday.