5th July 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Spain's impressive European Under-21 Championship campaign ultimately ended in disappointment, with La Roja outplayed and outthought by Germany in the final. But there are plenty of positives to be drawn from Albert Celades' side's run in the competition, not least the emergence of Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos as a truly elite-level talent.
The 20-year-old playmaker demonstrated the full gamut attributes desired of a player in his position: technique, vision, awareness discipline and creativity. Although AtlÃ©tico Madrid star SaÃºl Ã‘Ãguez stole the headlines in the semi-final victory over Italy by bagging a spectacular hat-trick, it was Ceballos who stood out most, pulling the strings in midfield and putting in a men-against-boys kind of performance.
The 20-year-old's displays in Poland along with his form over the last 18 months with Betis have marked him out as one of the most promising young players in La Liga. And with a release clause set at just €15 million, the Andalusian prodigy is set to move in one of the bargain deals of this summer.
Real Madrid are thought to be leading the chase for his signature, with Italian champions Juventus also in the running. But it is the interest of Barcelona which should appeal to Ceballos most, and, in turn, the Catalan giants must move heaven and earth to secure the midfielder.
A supremely gifted dribbler with flawless technique, capable of splitting defences and increasing the tempo of his team's attacking play at will words that could be used to describe both Ceballos and BarÃ§a legend AndrÃ©s Iniesta.
As was the case with Xavi in his later years at the Camp Nou, Iniesta's inevitable physical decline must be managed carefully, a vital task for new manager Ernesto Valverde in the coming season. The 119-cap Spain superstar has the potential to be decisive at key moments for the Blaugrana, but only if his workload is carefully governed.
Which means that it will be increasingly required of Barcelona to perform without their captain, to find solutions in games without the inspiration and inventiveness of their leader. It was hoped that AndrÃ© Gomes, last summer's marquee signing from Valencia, would be able to step up in such situations, but the Portuguese playmaker cut a timid and overly-cautious figure last term, seemingly paralysed by the presence of his vastly talented peers, rather than inspired to reach their level.
This is where Ceballos should come in. Not short of confidence, in fact exuding a swaggering self-belief on the field, the Betis youngster appears to have the temperament to thrive in the Camp Nou cauldron of expectation; like a poker player with a perfect hand, he chooses to up the ante on where others view his ceiling.
"If I am going to play for a big team one day, I am going to go to play, not to be on the bench," he told Marca in March.
"When a player bursts into a club like Betis, the interest of other clubs should serve as extra motivation to continue working and finish the season the best way possible."
The prospect of playing for one of the world's biggest clubs, then, does not phase Ceballos. Which is just as well because that's exactly the way his career is heading; his steep upward trajectory is pointing to the very top end of the European game.
Nor would he be overawed by the thought of acting as Iniesta's understudy before eventually replacing the legendary BarÃ§a skipper. With a skillset eerily reminiscent of the long-time Spain international, Ceballos ticks the technical and tactical boxes to succeed in the role, as well as seemingly satisfying the psychological requirements of filling such a great player's boots.
Ceballos' self-confidence and tenacity can overspill into something a little more unsavoury, occasionally coming across as arrogant and even landing in hot water for comments he made about Catalans and potential team-mate Gerard PiquÃ© as a teenager. This, you would think, can be put down to his youth and, with the right public utterances, could be overcome should he decide to make the Camp Nou his home.
Barcelona are at present prioritising a move for Paris Saint-Germain's Italian midfielder Marco Verratti. The French club are currently refusing to countenance the 24-year-old's sale, but if they are to be persuaded a fee in excess of €100million will be required. With a right-back also in the agenda this summer, that might not leave enough in the coffers to add Ceballos.
However, as tempting as it is to chase after a marquee name such as Verratti, BarÃ§a would be wise to commit more of their attention to Ceballos. Verratti is a wonderful player with metronomic passing, but he is not as dynamic as the Betis man; he would be brought in as Xavi's heir rather than Iniesta's.
With the low fee involved in capturing Ceballos, there would be plenty of scope for a substantial bid for Arsenal's HÃ©ctor BellerÃn, as well as money left over to sign Ivory Coast midfielder Jean MichaÃ«l Seri from Nice for the controlling role.
If Valverde elects to keep faith in the 4-3-3 formation that has formed the foundation of Barcelona's success over the last decade-and-a-half, Ceballos is tailor-made to occupy the more advanced interior role to the left of pivote Sergio Busquets.
With a World Cup on the horizon and Iniesta turning 34 before it commences, Ceballos couldn't have timed his arrival as an elite prospect any better. A move to Barcelona would allow him to show national team coach Julen Lopetegui that there is no more suitable successor to the man who scored the most important goal in Spanish football history.
Madrid reportedly want to sign Ceballos now and loan him back to Betis for a year, but even then his first-team prospects would look slim, with Luka Modri?, Toni Kroos, Isco and Mateo Kova?i? all standing in his way.
At Barcelona he would play. And he would shine. It almost makes too much sense.
Dani Ceballos should succeed Iniesta at Barcelona
5th July 2017. By Ryan Baldi.