Fear and loathing without Aspas as 'pathetic' Celta drift towards the rocks

Sid Lowe on 18 February 2019

Celta de Vigo’s fans saw hope disappear before their eyes. An hour had gone and José Luis Morales had just scored Levante’s third but it wasn’t only what was happening on the pitch that brought the fatalism flooding back at Balaídos, it was what was happening alongside it. There had been applause and anticipation when Iago Aspas, their captain and their everything, stepped into the sunlight and began warming up, tracksuit off ready to return after six weeks away; now there was silence as he ducked into the shadows and sat down again, worry and resignation written across his face and theirs.

Back on the bench, boots off, mission aborted, Aspas watched powerless as the fans clapped Morales and whistled everyone else. He watched team-mates argue over an irrelevant 88th-minute penalty to make it 1-3, the tiniest flicker of life immediately extinguished when Borja Mayoral scored Levante’s fourth seconds later. He listened to supporters call for the president to resign – which is exactly what Carlos Mouriño, pointedly ignoring the mayor up in the directors’ box, would do if he could find someone to pay him enough to buy the club. And he watched another defeat and more disillusion, the final whistle blown to emptying stands. While he watched, he occasionally reached down and rubbed his calf.

Celta had been beaten again. Sixteenth in the table, this was bad. Vigo’s press summed it up in apocalyptic terms: Celta were “bleeding”, an “open wound”, a “shipwreck,” “pathetic”, “depressing”. The fans chanted that they were “up to the bollocks” with it all: sick of it. The team is sick too: “in intensive care”, one headline insisted. And it wasn’t about to get better. After the game, manager Miguel Cardoso admitted he hadn’t put Aspas on because as the forward sprinted along the touchline, he felt something in his calf. The next day, the club doctor revealed another muscle tear. “We’re a bit scared,” he said.

They all are. At the same time as the doctor appeared, Girona were completing a historic victory at the Bernabéu, beating Real Madrid 2-1 – “Apotheosis!” cheered Diari de Girona – and within a few hours Villarreal had defeated Sevilla 3-0. Those results saw Celta slip to 17th, a point above the relegation zone and with two teams – Rayo Vallecano and Villarreal – within a draw of catching them. Below them are Huesca, who are six points back but have a game in hand and, seemingly long gone six weeks ago, have reacted recently. Without a victory since the opening day, they have now won three of their last six, two of their last three. And Huesca are not the only ones – which is part of the point, another reason to be fearful in Vigo, where suddenly they’re not safe from anyone.

Anything seems possible at the bottom: any three from 10 teams could go down – Levante in 11th are only seven points off the relegation zone – in a fight marked by long runs of form, in which a single win can seem to change everything, especially how things feel. Espanyol, within a win of top, then lost nine of 10 matches; Valladolid, quietly impressing everyone at the start, have won only one in nine; Athletic, without a win since the opening day, replaced Eduardo Berizzo with Gaizka Garitano, recovered and have lost just one in nine; Rayo, deep in trouble having won twice in 16 weeks, went on a run of winning four of five, although they have lost that momentum with three defeats in a row.

Safety, Celta might have thought, came in other team’s inabilities. But Espanyol have arrested their slide a little, unbeaten in three. More importantly, this weekend Girona and Villarreal finally picked up victories, 11 games later.

Girona hadn’t been that bad – they’re the only side to have picked up points against Barcelona, Madrid and Atlético, winning at the Bernabéu and drawing at the Camp Nou – but their results had been and the pressure built. “This week at last we got our reward,” coach Eusebio Sacristán said. At Villarreal, Javier Calleja is back, the formation has been changed, Cazorla class in the middle, and on Sunday evening they defeated Sevilla 3-0. Neither are safe – Villarreal are in the relegation zone – but the emotional boost is huge. “It’s historic and shows we have soul,” Girona midfielder Alex Granell said, while team-mate Douglas Luiz admitted: “We needed this.” Villarreal felt the same. “We needed this to believe that we’re a good team,” said Vicente Iborra. “But we still haven’t done anything.”

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Celta desperately needed something too, but they didn’t get it. A win of their own against Sevilla a fortnight ago was not the turning point they hoped for. Nor was sacking manager Tony Mohamed: he walked in November, 12 weeks into the season, but there has been no real reaction. In fact, they have been worse under Miguel Cardoso – from 14 points in 12 to 10 in 12 – and this weekend’s results mean Celta are Spain’s worse team in 2019. They have three points from 24. Victory over Sevilla was their only win in eight, and they lost the other seven.

Their momentum is only going in one direction and just as importantly the hope that they can reverse that is diminishing. It’s not just that victory over Sevilla was their only win in eight, it’s that it was their only win without Iago Aspas in two years. That’s why supporters saw hope sit down with him on Saturday afternoon and hard it slip even further away with the announcement on Sunday.

“It’s not good news,” Dr García Cota said as he appeared before the media. It is the worst news possible. The situation is “Godless”, said El Faro de Vigo – and their God is Aspas. Celta have many problems: they have good players – Brais Méndez and Okay Yokuslu stand out – but have conceded more than anyone, repeatedly play themselves into trouble, are defensively soft and often chaotic. There have been odd decisions: Pione Sisto has disappeared and this weekend Mathias Jensen played his first minutes under Cardoso. Stanislav Lobotka sat on the bench. Méndez went up front. The manager complains that he has never had a full squad available and on Saturday he was without Maxi Gómez too. And yet sometimes a single player is more significant than all the analyses put together.

Iago Aspas in action against Getafe earlier this month.
Iago Aspas in action against Getafe earlier this month. Photograph: Mariscal/EPA

Missing Aspas and Maxi was, Cardoso claimed, “a brutal assault.” Missing just Aspas is bad enough. “They went into battle with rifles that fire out confetti, while Levante had weapons of mass destruction,” claimed El Atlántico. Aspas is their top scorer, after all, but it’s more than that. There may be no individual more decisive in La Liga – perhaps not even Leo Messi.

Apart from Messi, there is certainly no player upon whom so much responsibility is loaded, in whom so much hope resides, whose absence creates so much anxiety. At Liverpool, he once took a corner; a youth teamer from across the water in Moaña, where his mum wades into the ríafor shellfish, at Celta, he does it all– an attacker who influences everything everywhere, makes everybody better. He is contagious, tin chest puffed out. He is, as they say, Celta’s faro – their lighthouse, their guide, their hope. In his absence, there was apathy. Above all, there was fear. A ship adrift, heading for the rocks.

Aspas tore his calf at Barcelona just before Christmas. Since then, he has played just 24 minutes, still not fully fit when he came on with Celta 2-1 down and a man down against Getafe, watching as an absurd third was gifted. Going into that Barcelona match, they were ninth on 21 points, seven points above the relegation zone; now they are 17, on 24 points, a single point above. They have lost seven of eight, conceding 17. They went into this weekend in free fall, desperately in need of something to grab on to. Him, basically. And while he had admitted that his calf “never seemed to be quite right”, he was due to play 30 minutes. As he ran, though, something happened: a goal at one end, a tear on the touchline. A new tear, doctors believe, just above the old one.

“A vigil for Aspas,” one headline said. You half expect them to light a candle outside the physio’s room. No one knows how many weeks it will be before he’s playing, and many fear the answer is the same number of weeks it is before Celta recover, maybe even before they win again. On his debut for Celta, aged 21, Aspas scored the goals that rescued his team from relegation to Spain’s third tier and maybe from extinction. Now they need rescuing again, but even he can’t do that if he’s not there.

Talking points

• There is not league? Just a week after there was, there isn’t again. Santi Solari said Real Madrid were “absolutely” in the title race but most disagree. “We needed to win this; these were golden points,” said Thibaut Courtois, just a few minutes after he went up for a last-minute corner to connect with a header he couldn’t quite guide goalwards. They left Vinicius Junior out of the starting XI for the first time in 12 games and suffered a deserved defeat – whose fans were waiting for them with fireworks when they arrived back in Catalonia – that left them nine points (plus head to head) behind Barcelona and saw them slip back into third. They’ve lost seven times already this season – their worst total in a decade.

• There’s certainly no league for Sevilla, who look increasingly like what they are: a team who have played 44 games already this season.

• Not only did Villarreal win this weekend, they also scored arguably the goal of the season. A wonderful move culminated in Carlos Bacca’s backheel that left goalkeeper and defender crashing into each other and Toto Ekambi free to get the second. Gorgeous. Although he did almost miss. He looked suitably sheepish too.

Eibar 2-2 Getafe, Celta Vigo 1-4 Levante (left), Rayo Vallecano 0-1 Atlético Madrid, Real Sociedad 3-0 Leganés, Barcelona 1-0 Real Valladolid, Real Madrid 1-2 Girona, Valencia 0-0 Espanyol, Villarreal 3-0 Sevilla, Real Betis 1-1 Alavés; (Monday) Huesca v Athletic Bilbao

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 24 38 54
2 Atletico Madrid 24 17 47
3 Real Madrid 24 12 45
4 Sevilla 24 10 37
5 Getafe 24 9 36
6 Alaves 24 -3 36
7 Real Sociedad 24 5 34
8 Real Betis 24 -3 33
9 Valencia 24 4 32
10 Eibar 24 -1 31
11 Levante 24 -7 30
12 Leganes 24 -5 29
13 Espanyol 24 -10 29
14 Athletic Bilbao 23 -5 27
15 Girona 24 -9 27
16 Valladolid 24 -10 26
17 Celta Vigo 24 -7 24
18 Villarreal 24 -5 23
19 Rayo Vallecano 24 -14 23
20 Huesca 23 -16 18

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