On Sunday night, there were celebrations in Valencia. The previous Monday, there had been celebrations in Vigo. Three and four years ago, Villarreal and Celta de Vigo played in the Spanish second division, the Segunda Division. Now they are two teams all of Europe should fear.
When Marcelino took over Villarreal in January 2013, they were seventh in the Spanish second division. Fast forward to May 2016 and they have secured fourth place in La Liga – a Champions League qualifying spot. Meanwhile, they’re also semifinalists in the Europa League.
Three years ago, Celta de Vigo secured their La Liga promotion on the last match day. The previous five years had seen them in the second division with the club close to bankruptcy. Now, they’ve claimed their return to Europe after a ten year absence.
Things change quickly in football and a dream that long seemed impossible can fast become reality. Both Villarreal and Celta know that.
In Villarreal, that dream is to win a title – this season they can.
In Vigo, that dream is the return of EuroCelta – now they’re back.
It was only three years ago that 10,000 Villarreal supporters travelled to Barcelona, walked off their buses at Career de Martí i Franquès and, instead of heading left towards the 99,000 capacity Camp Nou stadium, they took a right turn towards the 15,000 capacity MiniEstadi to see their team play against Barcelona’s B-team in the second division.
Just as they did in the stands, Villarreal won the game in easy fashion – 3-0 and they were heading back to La Liga while a yellow MiniEstadi celebrated with balloons and confetti.
Three years on and the Yellow Submarines have reason to celebrate again. On Thursday they defeated Liverpool with 1-0 at El Madrigal in the semi-finals of the Europa League before a 2-0 win over Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday locked in their Champions League spot for next season.
Though many might still believe Liverpool to be the favourite to advance to the final, they’re not, as anyone who’s followed Villarreal this season will tell you. The Yellow Submarines shouldn’t just be considered favourites against Liverpool but favourites to win the tournament.
Now, Villarreal have never won a trophy. Coming from a city with the population of 51,367 they’re in fact the second smallest town ever to reach a European semi-final. Furthermore, they played their first La Liga season as late as 1998. There are many reasons why Liverpool, with their history, would be favoured, but Villarreal know how to play football – and they’re pretty damn good at it.
They also know how to find and develop talents. Every season, they bring in new ones, and every season, they lose them to mightier clubs. When Luciano Vietto and Giovani Dos Santos left this summer, Denis Suarez, Samu Castillejo and Eric Bailly came – not to mention the season sensation Cédric Bakambu.
Add to that the ultimate leader, Bruno Soriano, who might well be the best defensive midfielder in La Liga after Sergio Busquets, and you get a team that not only play brilliant and enjoyable football but a team extremely difficult to beat.
So, this might be it for Villarreal. This might just be that season the 51,367 inhabitants of this small town always dreamt of. The season when they win their first ever trophy – and there’s no other team who deserve that Europa League title quite as much as they do.
There was a party at Estadio de Balaídos in Vigo last Monday – one that Celta had been waiting ten years for. It was the return of EuroCelta.
The fans stormed the pitch, Carles Planas ran around in his underwear, Nolito took selfies with anyone and everyone, and John Guidetti was thrown in the air as his song was sung.
Then and there, it didn’t matter if Celta would end fourth, fifth or sixth – just the fact that they mathematically could not end the season at any other position of the table was reason to celebrate.
There was a time when Celta was a regular in Europe – a time when they, during a month in 2001, topped the IFFHS ranking as the best club team in the world. But it’s now been ten years since there was a European night at Balaídos.
That was in 2006-07, the same season in which Celta was relegated from La Liga. The dreams of Europe went out the door and a five year struggle in the second division started. The dream of ever returning to Europe became just that – a dream and nothing more. Until now…
Financial problems in connection to the relegation forced the club to change direction. More focus was put on the youth academy while they began making more economical and smarter signings. They created a project, a vision, a style of play in order to lure players instead of waving the money they didn’t have.
In just three years since returning to La Liga, Celta haven’t just taken a European spot but built a team ready to compete on the international stage.
“Four years ago, we played in the second division. Three years ago we saved ourselves on the last match day. To be where we are now is just insane,” homegrown player Iago Aspas noted as he talked to Canal Plus last Monday, and he knew what he was talking about.
Aspas got his first games for Celta in the second division and he went on to make the assist to the goal that saved them on the last match day in La Liga against Espanyol three years ago. On Monday, he scored twice against Granada as they celebrated reaching Europe. Now, finally Aspas will get to do what he always dreamt of – to play for his Celta in Europe to be part of a new “EuroCelta”.
He’s right, it’s insane but at the same time, it’s extremely well deserved.
Celta have, at most times, played as a top European club and despite losing their captain and maybe most important player, Augusto, mid-season they still managed to get that European spot.
Next season EuroCelta will return and the city of Vigo couldn’t be more eager for their arrival.
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