Celta Vigo's win over Barcelona cued by Iago Aspas, the homegrown hero
It's a long way from the middle of the pitch to the goals at Balaidos and almost as long again from there to the stands, but Iago Aspas wasn't about to stop. Twice he ran from his own half to score against FC Barcelona on Wednesday night and twice he kept right on running, first to one end and then to the other, beyond the goal where the ball now lay and up, onto and over the advertising boards into the wide-open space behind where, still some distance away, Celta de Vigo's fans were going as wild as he was.
The image is picture perfect. Aspas stands on top of the hoarding, having scored his second goal, arms outstretched, fingers pointing. To his left are four young girls caught in the moment with him: eyes wide, mouths too, hands narrowed in applause, or awe or both. One wears a look of incredulity. In front of him, fans celebrate. To his right, a TV cameraman swings to capture him as he leaps down again, heading towards the supporters while his teammates are running to catch up. It's a long way.
Eventually, they arrive and embrace him and Aspas kisses the Celta badge, pointing to the stands as he heads back onto the pitch, his team now 3-1 up against the treble winners. It is no empty gesture; it's not a cynical, agent-inspired act to curry favour. The photo is taken from the back: "Aspas, 9" it says on his shirt, and it is his shirt. He's one of them. After two years away he was back where he belonged, given the chance to start again, to be himself. He had just scored as many league goals in one game against Barcelona, in Celta's 4-1 win, as he had in two seasons.
When the ball went in, the commentator on Sky TV in Britain said: "Yes, Liverpool fans, it is the same guy." The same guy those fans remember as much for a short corner gone horribly wrong as for any goals, of which there was just one against Oldham. The same guy who sat on the Sevilla bench, frustration rising inside him as a teammate clamped a hand over his mouth to prevent it spilling out and into the ears of his manager, who was standing a few metres away.
The last two years have not been good for Aspas. "I had [Luis] Suarez and [Daniel] Sturridge ahead of me at Liverpool," he explains. At Sevilla, he had Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro ahead of him; Gameiro was also a sub. Aspas played just 378 minutes at Liverpool before leaving for Sevilla, but things did not go much better. There, he was top scorer in the Copa del Rey with seven in five games, but in the league he started just four times, scoring twice. No outfield player was given fewer minutes.
Players do not succeed for lots of reasons; the idea that someone is simply a bad player is flawed. You do not spend €10 million on a bad player; equally though, English teams do spend €10m on a reserve. With Suarez and Sturridge ahead of him, Aspas was rarely likely to be anything else although it is true that he might have done more to challenge that and earn opportunities. Maybe the environment was not right; maybe Aspas did not do enough to make it right on the pitch or the training ground.
Maybe the same was true in Seville. At the end of his first frustrating season at Sevilla, Unai Emery talked about Aspas as a player he thought could succeed despite everything. There is something in Emery that likes a challenging player.
"You have to work with [Iago] a lot," he said not long before the Europa League final. "He has been a bit below his level and it has been hard after a year in which he hardly played with Liverpool. But we can work on that and next year could be his year."
Next year is this year now and it may well be his year, just not with Emery and Sevilla. In the summer, Aspas returned to Celta. While some might have done so with head bowed, he did not, if only because the fans would not let him. They were delighted to welcome him home and understood why he had gone in the first place. It was Liverpool -- the Premier League -- after all, and the €10m paid were good for Celta, a club whose business model is necessarily based on selling footballers and reinvesting wisely.
The money helped bring in Andreu Fontas and Celta's other star on Wednesday night, Nolito (who may in turn join Barcelona for €18m in the winter window). Nolito has been consistently outstanding and it cost Celta just €5m to get Aspas back. Now they can play together and progress and a small profit has been made.
"[Re]-signing Aspas was the best news. He has not played much these last two years and when we signed him, I knew it was very good for us," Alexander Mostovoi said. Mostovoi used to play for Celta and is an idol to fans. Fans like Aspas.
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His Liverpool career ended with that short corner against Chelsea at the end of a game in which Steven Gerrard slipped and the league titled slipped away; his Sevilla career ended in frustration, too. But if they remembered him like that, Celta's fans preferred to remember him like this: the way he was Wednesday and the way he had been before. Aspas was one of them, the kid who joined the club at 9, the Celta fan who declared that never mind playing for them -- he'd never even want a girlfriend from A Coruna, home city of rivals Deportivo.
Born in Moana, a fishing town of under 20,000, the first time Aspas tried to join Celta he was forced to back away after admitting that he wasn't actually old enough. So he waited a year to join them.
Raised playing on the beach with a brother who was also at the club (and who now plays for Racing Ferrol in the Second Division B), he was talented, quick, skilful and daring, but he was also hard work: temperamental, headstrong, occasionally in trouble.
At Juvenil level, he even briefly left the club in a huff, joining local side Rapido de Bouzas instead. When the two teams met, he was sent off. Heading to the dressing room, he traded insults with some of the spectators, parents of those who had been his teammates not long before and who would soon be again. Aspas returned; apologies were accepted. He didn't really want to be anywhere else. "He is," as one coach put it, "all heart," even if he sometimes lost his head.
In the Galician derby in March 2013, he was sent off for a clash with Depor's Carlos Marchena. Up in the stands an injured teammate, Hugo Mallo, was watching with a supporters' club: the Iago Aspas Supporters' Club. Some teammates were furious that day, saying that he had cost them, but the fans still loved him. They saw themselves in him: someone who really cared, in fact, too much at times. And besides, that had been an isolated incident from a player who was getting better, and the way he played delighted them too.
It is easy to be dismissive and deride a player as just not very good, but there was a reason Liverpool signed him in the first place and why Sevilla did too. In the 2012-13 season, Celta's first back in the top flight for five years, he was their best player, taking responsibility and leading the side creatively: top of the assists charts and top of the goal-scoring charts, hyperactive and committed; everything went through him. Celta survived on the final day; Aspas provided a wonderful assist for the game's only goal.
The year before, he had led them to promotion from the Second Division. The division's best player -- not just Celta's -- he scored 23 times in 35 games and just 28 starts. Celta were back, thanks to Aspas.
Now he returns to a stronger Celta. This is a team and a club that is growing under Toto Berizzo. They're economically stable, even if they still have the sixth-smallest wage bill in primera, and with better players than ever before. One where Aspas has good players around him and good people too. His people. This is a club where he feels at home, and for him to perform well, that matters. "I came home to be happy, to have playing time, to be with my people," he said. "I feel loved here."
No wonder. Because it's not just that Iago Aspas was Celta's best player when they returned to the first division. It's not just that he was the youth-teamer, the local boy and the fan who led them back, or that even his departure was good for them. It's not just that he went away, came back and scored twice against the European champions, standing before the fans celebrating victory over Barcelona as Celta climbed to joint top of the table.
No. It's also that that none of that might have happened at all without him; it's that before all that, there was more.
Way before that, all the way back to Aspas' very first day. In 2009 Celta de Vigo were in crisis, their European days forgotten. The club's debt was over €80m and they were near the foot of the Second Division. Relegation to the Second Division B -- Spain's third tier, split across four regional divisions each of 20 teams, where there is little interest and less money -- would have been catastrophic for the club. It may even have been the end. But then Aspas came along.
It was June, the penultimate week of the season. Aspas was 21. Celta faced Alaves at Balaidos and he came on to make his debut, wearing 28, his team struggling. In the 80th minute it was 0-0, and that was when Aspas scored. As the ball hit the net, he ran to the corner flag, whipping his shirt off and skidding to the ground by the corner flag, grabbing a fluffy boom mike while teammates piled on.
"Of all the people you would have wanted to score, it would be him," said the commentator on Galician TV. "He deserves this. He has radically changed this game." Another commentator added: "Absolute delirium here. Aspas is going to write great afternoons of football here. What a way to introduce yourself."
The problem was that that Alaves equalised. This was desperate now. The clock was ticking towards 94 minutes; time for one last attack. The ball was sent forward and into the area; when it dropped it was Aspas, the kid from Moana, the Celta fan, the youth-teamer making his debut for his team, a club in crisis. Aspas scored and set off on a familiar run: off the pitch, beyond the goal, up onto and over the advertising boards and towards the supporters, who were going almost as wild as he was.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.