One day in July of last year, Florentino Pérez’s plane landed at an aerodrome in northern Italy, and Dani Carvajal got off it, bent on an obsessive search for muscular peace. The previous season had been the most miserable of his career: he had never been able to play so few minutes (950 in the League and 166 in the Champions League). A few kilometers away, in Sacile, he had an appointment to talk about nutrition. It was another attempt to find a remedy for his collection of muscle tears, which has given him major disappointments, such as having to withdraw from two Champions League finals, the last one drenched in tears: the 2016 against Atlético in Milan, and the one in 2018, in kyiv against Liverpool. The same rival this Saturday in Paris.
The recently completed course of the traveler landed in Italy had been exasperating: 269 days off due to various muscle and ligament ailments, according to Transfermarkt records. At one point in the season, a friend told him that he was worried about headaches that he thought the braces were causing. The footballer was wondering if his own invisible corrector would not be the origin of his ailments. In despair over spiraling injuries, Carvajal became convinced that his problems were born in the mouth and considered removing the brace. But he finished the treatment.
The same bewilderment that made him doubt the dental corrector was what led him to Sacile. From there he came out with some general guidelines on food that he has later specified with Itziar González de Arriba, a physiotherapist and osteopath with various studies in nutrition who takes care of the dishes of several players on the squad.
The solution was not in the mouth, but in the stomach, and in November Carvajal seemed to begin to see the light: “Now I have a gluten-free, wheat-free, nightshade-free diet,” he said. Solanaceae are, for example, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, potatoes and courgettes. They contain solanine, an alkaloid with which they protect themselves from insects and animals, and that can cause inflammation, allergies and autoimmune processes in people. Athletes, in particular, can suffer its effects on muscle fibers. And Carvajal was clear that he wanted to get out of that dynamic: “[la dieta es] A little weird and a little strict, but it’s something that suits me. And whatever comes in handy…Like if I have to eat broccoli morning, noon, and night,” she said.
People who know him well assure that he is not just saying it, that the footballer is “very constant, and when something gets between his eyebrows…”. In the Real Madrid locker room, they have checked his determination up close: he has used trainers, physios, nutritionists… “All the resources in the world,” says a source with access to the locker room. And in that, according to people close to the footballer, he has always had the firm support of the club. Even with the president’s plane.
In any case, the transformation was not magical, nor immediate. Between some new muscle problem at the beginning and a particularly annoying coronavirus, from which he already rejoined in February, he has been slow to come back. Also, for weeks after that Carvajal still played with a trace of fear.
His definitive takeoff had to do, like that of this Madrid of the amazing comebacks, with a Champions League match. In the second leg of the quarter-final against Chelsea, at the Bernabéu, it was others who were injured, and Carvajal took over the center-back position for the first time in his life. He played 120 minutes and left a remarkable performance in an unknown location. Just five days later he completed 90 minutes in a very demanding game against Sevilla, in which he started out of place at left-back and then returned to right-back. He gave an assist from each flank.
By then, his closest people were already beginning to recognize the decisive Carvajal of yesteryear. They saw that he dared to do more things, to go higher, to risk more. And three weeks later, in the second leg of the semi-final against City, in the 91st minute he dribbled past Grealish and sent the ball into the area that Rodrygo headed to send the game into extra time. “It could be that I am at my peak of form this season,” he said on Tuesday, four days before his fifth Champions League final, in which he will have to watch Luis Díaz, Liverpool’s latest sensation, and also try to punish the back of the defense of Klopp’s team. At last at its best, the end of the journey that began in Sacile.
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