La Liga: Aspas return sparks Celta’s survival hopes

With Celta Vigo in the relegation zone in La Liga, Hal Walker looks at the impact of Iago Aspas’ return to the team.

There was a tangible sense of déjà vu by the end of the helter-skelter relegation encounter between Celta Vigo and visitors Villarreal at Balaídos last Saturday evening.

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Nearly 10 years ago, a 21-year-old Iago Aspas scored two goals – including a dramatic 94th-minute winner – in the final 10 minutes at home to Alaves to prevent his beloved Celta dropping to the Segunda División B. It was the moment that the Balaídos crowd found a new local hero – a welcome inspiration who could not only provide goals but a character who they would identify with: gutsy, raw and committed; as if he had been plucked straight from the stands and thrown a Celta shirt.

Saturday’s climax evoked such memories in the sense that not only it was their saviour coming to their rescue once again, but that it was of similar significance – albeit not quite final-day drama – with Celta sitting ominously in the relegation zone in 18th, four points from safety before the visit of 17th-placed Villarreal.

On this occasion however, there were no overzealous celebrations, no jumping on advertising hoardings or gesticulating to the crowd. There were instead, tears of overwhelmed emotion, with no ability to move from the bench while the 22,315 sung his name with adulation. These were images that signalled the return of hope and life back into Bailados, following the 31-year-old’s instantaneous impact in his comeback game since his initial calf injury on 22 December against Barcelona.

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Celta were ninth before kick-off that day at the Camp Nou, and have plummeted since. Aspas made a brief substitute appearance against Getafe but looked uncomfortable and hindered, and has had to seek specialist treatment to accelerate a return to first-team action.

The contrast in their form with and without Aspas is damming. Celta have picked up 25 points with him leading their attack and just four without, losing 10 of their last 13 fixtures since the defeat at Barcelona.

While the rational conclusion from these statistics would generally be that of an over-dependency on one player that would be deemed by most as unsustainable – not least given his advancing years – it also underlines the unbreakable bond player and club have for each other. The life-sized cardboard cut-out of Aspas – adorned as a shrine-like monument with Celta scarves, candles, photos and rosary beads – in one corner of the ground manifested this appositely.

After joining the club as an eight-year-old and playing for a three-year period for the club’s reserve side, Aspas had quickly garnered a prolific reputation for Celta’s first team in the Segunda – a season career-best total was achieved in 2011-12 with 23 goals, their promotion-winning campaign – accompanied with a distinct playing style bordering on the wild and impetuous.

Before long he was sold by the club for financial reasons and Aspas suffered during brief and unproductive spells at Liverpool and Sevilla, but he was soon back in Vigo again, playing with heart and desire like he had never left, nor had he ever wanted to.

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Late victory on Saturday was followed by another see-sawing encounter on Wednesday evening at rock-bottom Huesca, where Celta were held to a 3-3 draw. Aspas contributed an assist and fired his side into a two-goal lead initiating from an outstanding predatory turn and left-foot corner finish on the edge of the penalty box.

Frailties and a clear lack of resolve and resilience remain evident across Fran Escribá’s side, and a sold-out Balaídos await the testing visit of Real Sociedad on Sunday, but will at least be able to channel their faith in their inspiration, who at this moment in time, looks to be keeping a grim reality from the door.

You can follow Hal on Twitter at @halwalker

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