When Danilo arrived at Real Madrid in the summer of 2015 for a fee of €31.5 million, Dani Carvajal’s position as first-choice right back was cast into doubt. The price tag, the Brazilian’s performances at Porto over the previous two seasons and the sensation that Carvajal didn’t quite fit the Real Madrid profile of big-money players in every position having come through the ranks at La Fabrica all pointed to a swift and painful demotion.
Danilo started the first two Liga games of 2015-16 under Rafa Benitez while Carvajal kicked his heels on the bench, but as the season progressed, both players enjoyed pitch time as injuries spared the Spaniard a definitive decision. When Zinedine Zidane ascended to the first-team job in January 2016, he had both available, Carvajal having returned from a hamstring problem in time to start the Frenchman’s first game in charge, a 5-0 thrashing of Depor.
Danilo, who had played the full 90 in Mestalla a week earlier in a 2-2 draw that heralded the end of Benitez’s brief tenure, has been dependent on injuries and Zidane’s rotation policy to get a look-in since. Before the winter break, he was handed 10 starts. After the festive hiatus, the Brazilian’s Real Madrid career reached its nadir. Two own goals in two weeks, against Sevilla and Celta in the Copa del Rey, would have been bad enough, but the second played a huge part in Madrid’s elimination, unlucky for Danilo though it was.
What little confidence the full-back retained was subsequently swept away on a blast of censure from the Bernabeu stands.
All of which makes Danilo’s recent renaissance so impressive. Zidane has been repainting the Sistine Chapel for 18 months, but touching his finger to the re-creation of Danilo ranks among his finest achievements. When Carvajal succumbed to a fresh hamstring injury in the Allianz Arena, Madridismo sucked air through its collective teeth. Talk of drafting Nacho in at right back or even using Lucas Vazquez was rife, with the Liga and Champions League in play. “Anything but Danilo” was the prevailing wind.
The Brazilian has answered his critics in style, not only testament to Zidane’s management but also evidence that the player who lit up Porto has not been entirely dimmed by his Bernabeu struggles. In La Rosaleda, where Real clinched the title, Danilo thundered into double the number of tackles any of his teammates mustered.
His numbers for the Liga season also suggest that high-profile blunders overshadow his contribution. An unexpected late-season flurry of activity makes him Zidane’s 15th-most-used player, and Danilo leads the squad in interceptions per game, with three on average. His total of 40 gives him three fewer than Casemiro and Luka Modric and nine more than Toni Kroos.
Carvajal managed 45 despite playing 1,372 minutes more than his understudy, while Raphael Varane has two fewer with over 13 full games on Danilo.
The Brazilian also leads the squad in successful tackles, having come out on top in 51 of his 64 attempts, an 80 percent success rate. Five players have stuck their boot in more frequently, but only Nacho (55 made at 74 percent) and Carvajal (58 at 72 percent) come close. Kroos has missed 43 of 177 attempts, a success rate of 63 percent, and Casemiro, the side’s top tackler with a nice round 100, has missed 47 (68 percent).
The flip side to those statistics is the pervading view that a headless chicken in the No. 23 shirt would be in the right place at the right time as often as Danilo. That is where the 25-year-old’s Madrid career hangs in the balance. Nowhere in Zidane’s squad is the gulf in quality between first and second choice as pronounced as right-back, and Danilo cannot mask his defensive deficiencies with the attacking verve of Marcelo.
In the Champions League, a competition in which Zidane has proved far less eager to shuffle his deck, Danilo has played just 270 minutes, filling in for Marcelo in the 2-2 draw in Dortmund — with Keylor Navas enduring the post-match obituaries — and in the subsequent 5-1 defeat of Legia Warsaw, in which he provided an assist for Gareth Bale to open the scoring but also conceded a clumsy penalty. He was benched for the 3-3 draw in the return leg in Poland last November, his stock rising briefly as a result, but wasn’t called on again until the semifinal second leg against Atletico two weeks ago.
With the domestic season over, Danilo may have just one game remaining as a Real Madrid player amid links to Serie A and the Premier League. Achraf Hakimi, already capped by Morocco, is being tipped for promotion to the senior squad this summer.
Carvajal returned to light training on May 19 and could be passed fit for Cardiff. But if Danilo deputizes, it would be a fitting finale for a player who has been an uncomplaining servant to the cause and rose to the occasion of the Liga run-in after being written off as deadwood as recently as February.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.