By Alexandra Jonson
Leaving the likes of Barcelona, Sevilla and Villarreal in their tracks, Celta de Vigo have become the surprise team of La Liga this season – and not even a 1-5 loss at home to Valencia could make the Sky Blues look bad.
After 11 rounds, Celta lie fourth in the league table – a position they couldn’t even have dreamt of three years ago. Still, it’s their worst position this season. Berizzo’s men are the only team in La Liga yet to end a matchday outside of the top four.
When Celta lost 1-5 to Valencia last weekend, fans at Balaídos stayed until the final minutes to give their team a standing ovation, despite the result. They owed them that much.
What Celta have done so far this season is something extraordinary. On matchday two – the club’s 92nd birthday – they topped the Spanish league for the first time in their history. On the fourth matchday, they outplayed Sevilla at the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuán, a stadium only Real Madrid managed a win at in the previous season.
On the fifth matchday, they beat Barcelona 4-1. After the Catalans’ worst league defeat in seven years, Andrés Iniesta conceded, “They outplayed us… they didn’t give us any chance to think, they really outplayed us,” while Javier Mascherano admitted, “Being outplayed… it’s an ugly feeling”.
On the eighth matchday, Celta beat then league leaders Villarreal in added time at El Madrigal, showing they not only play some breathtaking football, but that they also possess an immense winning mentality.
So, when Real Madrid came to town on matchday nine, the local press talked about a historical game in the sense that it might be the first time Los Blancos arrived at Balaídos not being clear favourites. Madrid based Marca’s headline named it, “The Wall Against Celta,” and it was clear that Madrid were coming to Vigo to defend. With both teams having won the same amount of games, drawn the same and lost the same, they were equals, and also co-leaders of the league table.
After the game, even the Madrid-based journalists admitted that Celta had been the better side, but an outstanding Keylor Navas had been decisive. “To score past Keylor Navas today, you had to score a golazo,” striker Nolito concluded. Something the Celta top-scorer managed to do, but it wasn’t enough, as they fell to their first loss of the season, 1-3.
Talking to Celta’s brilliant Danish midfielder Daniel Wass about their incredible league start, he admitted that, “We have had a bit of luck” but highlighted that, “you have to work hard for luck.”
That was something they would do in San Sebastian on matchday 10, coming back twice to win 2-3 against Real Sociedad.
When Valencia came around on matchday 11, Celta’s luck was nowhere to be seen. It was one of the strangest 1-5 games I’ve ever seen, and could easily have been 5-1 instead of 1-5.
Even with the disappointing result against Valencia, it’s clear that Celta should be seen as one of La Liga’s top teams and a real contender for a European spot. For a team that, three years ago, played in the second division, this might be a surprise for some. But is it really so hard to believe?
For the players, it isn’t. Speaking with Celta captain Augusto Fernandez ahead of the season, he told me that their goal was to reach Europe, saying that last season, the team was better than what their 8th spot suggested and that they are even better now. “We have grown a lot as a team and know exactly how to play,” Augusto noted, “I don’t know if we have a better squad individually, but I feel that we are a stronger squad as a whole.”
And the club’s supporters are happy with what they’re seeing. “It’s been a long time since Celta played like this,” says Alberto Fraga, a member of Celta supporters’ group Irmandiños1923. “It’s not normal for Celta to play like this,” he argues. They are a small club that shouldn’t be able to outplay teams like Barcelona. “It’s insane,” Alberto insists.
Still, he won’t say it’s the best team the club has ever had. That title belongs to “EuroCelta”, a nickname given by the Spanish media to the Celta team that, between 1997-2003, was a regular in Europe. In February 2001, they reached their highest peak, named the world’s best club team that month by the IFFHS.
But today, Europe worries the Celta supporters. “We got a lot of excitement for reaching Europe at the same time we are frightened of it,” Alberto explains. While playing in the Champions League during the 2003-04 season, Celta failed in La Liga and were relegated. Upon returning to Spain’s first division, they would reach Europe once more after finishing sixth in 2005-06, earning a UEFA Cup spot. Once again, however, they would fail in the league and get relegated to the Spanish second division.
It would take five years before Celta returned to La Liga. Five years that saw the club shaking and on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a time of insecurity, when many believed that the Galician club had seen its last days – that they were on the way to disappearing for good.
A lot has changed since those days. Celta have taken care of their economical problems and even if they still live on a small budget, they’ve become smarter. In many ways, you could say that the club has grown up.
They sign good players, but for bargain prices: instead of offering a lot of money, they offer an idea, an exciting project. That’s how, during their three years back in La Liga, they built a team ready to compete with the best.
But everything isn’t there yet and there are some concerns when looking ahead at the current season. The team has a relatively thin squad and fans criticise the absence of rotations. There’s a sense of insecurity in defence and a lack of of concentration against smaller teams. Losing points against Las Palmas, Getafe and Eibar shows that.
The season is long, but for now, Celta are playing some fantastic football – football that is certainly worth watching. Even Barcelona coach Luis Enrique knows as he argues, “Celta are one of the most entertaining teams to watch, not just in Spain, but in Europe”.
Follow Alexandra at @alexandrajonson