A buzz goes round the assembled media at Le Grand Stade de Marrakech as movement is spotted in the dressing-room area. Fresh from their semi-final win over Cruz Azul at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014, the Real Madrid players are starting to leave the dressing room and some are stopping to give interviews when a TV assistant utters a whispered “Who’s he?” to his colleague, in reference to the passing Dani Carvajal.
And though an unusual scenario when talking about a club as high-profile as Los Blancos, particularly with Carvajal one of the team’s finest performers in said semi-final and throughout the season so far, it appears to be the price paid when playing alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale. Expected to start the final of Morocco 2014, a key figure in Madrid’s tenth UEFA European Cup/Champions League triumph and a dominant presence on Los Merengues’ right flank for some 18 months now, still the eyes of the general public are drawn elsewhere. Final opponents San Lorenzo and coach Edgardo Bauza cannot afford to do the same on Saturday.
“He’s the best right-back to come up through the ranks since Chendo,” said Ricardo Gallego, formerly the director of Madrid’s youth system, when speaking to Spanish El País. “You just had to see him in training to realise how good of a player he was,” added Gallego, an erstwhile team-mate of Chendo and Emilio Butragueno in the club’s memorable Quinta del Buitre era.
Carvajal’s display against Cruz Azul was nothing short of exemplary, the buccaneering full-back earning the free-kick that led to Sergio Ramos’ opening goal, as well as producing a exquisite run and nutmeg on the way to teeing up Karim Benzema for Madrid’s second. It was his third assist so far of a season in which he is a starter in Spain's La Liga and has been rested in the Champions League, a supply tally added to by three further assists last season and another eight when at Bayer Leverkusen the season before – the youngster having been sold given then coach Jose Mourinho’s preference for Alvaro Arbeloa. Voted the Bundesliga’s fourth-best right-back by Kicker during his season in Germany, this year Carvajal was also included among the candidates for the UEFA.com Team of the Year.
In pursuit of excellence
An admirer of former Madrid right-back Michel Salgado and modern counterpart Philipp Lahm, though Carvajal thoroughly enjoys the adventurous side of his position – he fully understands the importance of picking his moment and not shirking his defensive duties. “My dad used to ask me why I didn’t want to be a striker or a winger, trying to score goals, but I love those one-on-one tussles with attacking players,” he said, but his forward-thinking characteristics fit coach Carlo Ancelotti’s strategy like a glove: “The way we play, with three in midfield, means that we need the full-backs to get forward more and link up with the midfielders and strikers,” said Carletto.
Marcelo, who ploughs the opposite flank to Carvajal, told FIFA.com just how important the full-backs have become to the winning machine that is Real Madrid: “The full-back’s first job is to defend, but Ancelotti keeps insisting that we push forward. Carvajal is a great right-back. He’s very strong and has this fantastic ability to pop up in the opposition box.”
The Brazilian, who, like Carvajal, has become indispensable in compressing the space in the middle of the pitch and providing valuable midfield ballast while Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale go about their business up front, is delighted to see his young Spanish team-mate making progress: “He’s come on an awful lot and he’s only going to get better and better. He’s a nice, quiet, down-to-earth lad with the right mentality. He’s always asking questions.”
Up for the fight
Isco might have something to say about the 22-year-old defender being the nice, quiet type. The former Malaga man took to Twitter a few days ago to publish a photo of a PlayStation control pad that Carvajal smashed to pieces after losing a game.
As the image showed, the quiet and unassuming Carvajal is as fiercely competitive as they come, as his coach now knows for himself.
“I’m surprised by how much intensity he puts into his work and his football,” said Ancelotti shortly after taking over at the Bernabeu.
Another of his admirers is Rudi Voeller, director of football at Bayer Leverkusen. “We always knew that Real Madrid would one day realise just what he has to offer,” said the former German international, confirming how much Carvajal is missed by the Bundesliga side.
Carvajal will be his usual motivated self on Saturday evening, having tweeted on his arrival in Morocco that he was absolutely determined to go and lift the trophy: “Winning it would be very special and a great way to round the season off.”
It would also be great way of raising his profile that little bit further. Very soon, the days when people need to ask who the combative little Real Madrid right-back is will well and truly be over.