Who is Arsenal-linked midfielder Danilo? Palmeiras' Kante-inspired star going in search of third Libertadores title

Danilo Palmeiras 2022Getty Images

To win three consecutive Copas Libertadores is a feat so rare as to constitute a holy grail in South American football.

Since the competition began more than six decades ago, only two teams have achieved it, as the ever-watchful eye of top European sides and the continent's relative financial weaknesses generally ensure that winning squads are broken up before they have the chance to create a lasting dynasty of success.

Estudiantes lifted three titles from 1968 to 1970, inspired by the uncompromising defending of future World Cup-winning coach Carlos Bilardo and the genius of Juan Sebastian Veron's father, Juan 'La Bruja' Veron.

The 1970s, meanwhile, belonged to Diego Maradona's childhood idol Ricardo Bochini and Independiente, who won four straight crowns in a glorious era of dominance.

No Brazilian side, not Pele's Santos, nor the great Sao Paulo side of Zetti, Cafu and Rai coached by Tele Santana in the 1990s, has ever managed the 'three-peat'.

The onus is on Palmeiras, then, as on Wednesday the 2020 and 2021 champions kick off their quest for immortality at the start of the Libertadores group stage away to Venezuela's Deportivo Tachira.

The team, coached to both triumphs by Portuguese trainer Abel Ferreira, are not always easy on the eye. Efficiency rather than excitement has been the key to their success these past two years, marrying a watertight defence with brutally effective counterattacking to wear their rivals down.

But there is nevertheless plenty to like about the Verdao, particularly in the middle of the pitch, where their young star Danilo pulls all the strings, making himself a household name in Brazilian and South American football while catching the eye of elite clubs on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Watching Danilo strut his stuff, it is difficult to believe that he is still two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, nor that less than two years ago he was plugging away in the lower depths of Brazilian state football.

The midfielder was cut loose from the academy of Bahia at 15, a blow so painful he considered walking away from football altogether. Only the intervention of coach Dego Freitas, who had taken him under his wing at a local football school, stopped him from giving up on the dream of playing professionally.

“I told him: 'Kid, keep persevering. Don't leave football, for the love of God,” Freitas recalled to ESPN.

“He said that he had spent eight years at Bahia and they had cut him, but I insisted he should stay calm and have faith in God.”

Danilo heeded his mentor's words and rebooted his fledgling career at Serie B side Cajazeiras, taking them to second place in the division in 2018 and earning a transfer to Palmeiras – the Verdao paying R$500,000 (£70,000) for the youngster now conservatively estimated to be worth £20 million ($26m).

Danilo Palmeiras GFX
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When Ferreira took over from Vanderlei Luxemburgo in October 2020, Danilo had already established himself as a regular first-teamer alongside fellow academy gems Gabriel Menino and Gabriel Veron.

The Portuguese continued to make frequent use of the youngster, who is most comfortable anchoring the midfield just in front of the backline or acting as one half of a double pivot.

Despite being left-footed, he favours the right side, which allows him to cut inside and open up play, and while still 19 he played in all-but two of Palmeiras' 2020 Libertadores games as the club lifted its first title in the competition since 1999.

The following year, he was ever-present in the side that retained the Copa in thrilling circumstances, relegating Verdao icon and former Brazil hardman Felipe Melo to the bench for most of the 2021 season.

It coud be said that Danilo is becoming accustomed to trophies: including the Under-17 and 20 state championships he won in consecutive years in the Palmeiras youth ranks, he now has no fewer than seven to his name, the most recent coming on Sunday as Sao Paulo were blown away 4-0 in the Paulista final.

And while Palmeiras fell just short in the Club World Cup against Chelsea, the youngster left a glowing impression individually, beating global superstars N'Golo Kante and Jorginho to be named the tournament's best midfielder.

That final was a special moment for Danilo, who came up against one of his role models in the engine room.

“Kante is a different player because of what he does on the field: he'll run, get the ball and come back, he never tires,” he told BandNewsFM.

“He is is one of the players I watch most at Chelsea and the one who inspires me most.”

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There is certainly plenty of the France star in Danilo, in the way he shuttles across the pitch and moves along possession in impeccable fashion; but the younger man also possesses a secret weapon, a fantastic dribbling technique unusual in players of his position, which allows him to shake off markers and start Palmeiras' attacks in the blink of an eye.

Danilo may not have to wait long for a reunion with his idol. Chelsea's Premier League rivals Arsenal and West Ham have both been closely linked with his services, though Palmeiras will obviously look to push for a sale at the end of 2022 so as not to interrupt their Libertadores quest.

“He is a star, he has to play in the Premier League,” Danilo's team-mate Dudu explained to ESPN. “I always tell him: 'You have to play in Manchester United, or Arsenal. “He has to stay calm, he is a kid who gives his all, but I tell him: 'You are a player for Chelsea, those kind of teams'.

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“He scores, he gets in the area, he helps with marking. He is a complete midfielder in Brazilian football.”

With another Libertadores to dispute and the goal of a late charge into Tite's World Cup squad on the horizon, 2022 promises to be another sparkling year for one of Brazil's most promising young prospects.

And while he is still just starting out, with less than two years of professional football behind him, Danilo shows every sign of having the potential to blossom into an elite defensive midfielder at the very top level.