Benching of Dani Carvajal for Danilo Continues Real Madrid's Habit for Self-Harm

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Benching of Dani Carvajal for Danilo Continues Real Madrid's Habit for Self-Harm
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It had made little sense in the beginning, less sense midway through and absolutely no sense by the end. And then in the aftermath, it got awkward. 

Following his club's 1-1 draw with Real Betis on Sunday, Real Madrid director Emilio Butragueno was quizzed on the decision to bench in-form right-back Dani Carvajal in favour of Danilo. "Carvajal had a fever," was his explanation to Canal+ (per AS). For an instant, that seemed reasonable. But then, rather quickly, it wasn't. 

Moments later, manager Zinedine Zidane was questioned on the same matter in the press room. Why Danilo? Why not Carvajal—was there something wrong? "He didn't have anything wrong with him," said Zidane of Carvajal. "He didn't start the match because Danilo did, that's all there is to it."

Except that's not all there is to it.

And everyone knows it.

This has been an issue for Real Madrid all season and one they've brought on themselves, its existence emblematic of the club's propensity to get in its own way.

Last summer, the decision to sign Danilo was hard to understand, his €31.5 million price tag particularly baffling. In Carvajal, the club already had one of Europe's outstanding right-backs: a player who'd been ever-present under Carlo Ancelotti and who's been a regular face in Vicente del Bosque's Spanish national team.

Admittedly, with Alvaro Arbeloa ageing, there was an argument that Madrid needed cover for Carvajal, but an extravagantly expensive competitor was not the answer, not at all. But that's precisely what Madrid went and got anyway. 

Worse, though, is that Carvajal's expensive competitor has turned out to be vastly inferior to Carvajal. 

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

Already this season, numerous opponents of Real Madrid have exposed Danilo and the deficiencies in his game. First it was Celta Vigo and Nolito. Next it was Paris Saint-Germain and Maxwell. Then it was Sevilla and Yevhen Konoplyanka. After that it was Barcelona and Neymar. 

On each occasion the Brazilian was targeted, his struggles with tracking runners, recovering and closing off angles were exploited. As they were, it felt as though Carvajal's position was being strengthened; when Carvajal returned from injury to sparkle in Zidane's first two games in charge, the matter felt settled. 

But then Sunday happened. 

Against Betis at the Benito Villamarin, Zidane restored Danilo, the selection surrounded by a familiar suspicion: That the manager may not have wanted to but had to; that Danilo's price tag carries a political pressure for him to play. 

Quickly, it backfired, too.

In the moments before Alvaro Cejudo's stunning goal to open the scoring, it had been Cejudo's skip away from Danilo that had started the attack, and when Betis reached the Madrid penalty area, Danilo's missed tackle when catching up with the play saw the move continue. 

Again, an opponent had prospered down Danilo's flank, and yet, that wasn't the only issue. 

In attack, the Brazilian's passing and crossing was messy, and Carvajal's previous excellence in that respect against Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon emphasised it. Recognising the problem, Zidane made the switch and swapped his right-backs after an hour; immediately, Madrid improved, which only further highlighted the initial mistake. 

Soon after, Madrid got the equaliser, but that's all they got. Resisting them, Betis were brave and resilient in a way they've rarely been this season, meaning the night wasn't only about Carvajal and Danilo.

Having moved away from former manager Pepe Mel's open 4-4-2, the Andalusians expertly used a tight 4-2-3-1, packing the midfield and denying Madrid space. Goalkeeper Antonio Adan was excellent, too.

"Fourteen Gladiators," roared Estadio Deportivo in Seville. "Mucho Adan," lamented AS in the capital. 

CRISTINA QUICLER/Getty Images

In long and gruelling seasons, such nights can be expected; the heavyweights will slip up from time to time. In no way are Madrid invincible. Neither are their title rivals in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. And yet Sunday's setback wasn't defensible in a way it might have otherwise been. 

In a period without fixture congestion, Madrid had no need to rotate, particularly given that Carvajal had only just returned. Instead, Sunday night should have been about maintaining momentum for Madrid, picking the best XI and building a head of steam through continuity. Right now, form is all that matters for Zidane and Co., and yet form is exactly what was ignored.

Carvajal had it; Danilo didn't. Of course, Madrid didn't struggle solely because of that discrepancy, but it played a large part. 

"La Liga goes away," said a downbeat Marca on Sunday night. Maybe it has; maybe it hasn't. But the possibility is there because Madrid let price tags and internal politics prevail over sense, once again getting in their own way. 

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