Celta Vigo, Alaves target Copa del Rey final to cap their climb from the depths
It was June 2009 and things were desperate for Celta Vigo. The Second Division B -- the third tier in Spanish football -- awaited them; semi-professional football in a league that's actually four leagues, eight teams organised by region, and nicknamed el pozo or "the well" -- easy enough to fall into but mighty hard to climb out of again.
Celta and Alaves met in Week 40 of the season, each knowing that defeat would see them relegated from the second division. Hit by economic crisis and in administration, going down might even mean disappearance entirely.
It was 0-0 when Celta sent on a 21-year-old kid, wearing 28, for his debut. With 10 minutes to go, he scored. Then Alaves equalised. But in the 94th minute, the kid, who was born in nearby Moana and grew up a Celta fan and youth-teamer, scored again.
Behind the goal he ran, going wild. So did Balaidos. Their team had survived. The kid became an instant hero; he left for Liverpool in 2013 and subsequently spent a year at Sevilla, but then came back in the summer of 2015. His name is Iago Aspas. And his manager Eduardo Berizzo says: "With his return, the club found its place in the world again."
With time, so did Alaves and, on Thursday night, the two clubs met at Balaidos for the second time in a fortnight, but only the second time since that day, eight years ago. Of all those who played then, only Aspas is left, although his best friend Hugo Mallo -- born in Marín, 30 kilometres from Vigo, 15 from Moana -- made his first-team debut on the opening day of the following season and is now Celta's captain. These are different teams now, in very different positions, with cause for celebration. This time they met in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey.
The second leg is next week and, after Thursday's 0-0 draw, the tie is wide open. Aspas was unable to repeat his 2009 heroics; his shot, hit on the bounce, rocketed up and off the bar.
For Alaves, captain Manu García had perhaps the best opportunity. An Alaves fan, he wasn't there seven-and-a-half years ago -- he was playing for Real Unión -- and he never expected to be here either. He joined his club in 2012, down in the Second Division B, and always thought that it was only because they had slipped so far that he got the chance; he never really imagined he was good enough to play for them. But two promotions followed. And now this.
"I would have liked us to have scored," said Alaves coach Mauricio Pellegrino. "I'm not unhappy with the result," Berizzo insisted.
Mendizorroza will decide. There are 90 minutes to play -- maybe 120 -- and, this time, it is not an escape the clubs seek. Crisis does not await; the Copa del Rey final awaits. For whoever gets there, it will be historic. It already is, in fact.
Theirs have been impressive journeys and there is just a little further still to go. Neither side have ever won the Copa del Rey. Neither side have ever won anything, in fact. Celta have reached three Copa finals, Alaves none although, famously, they did play the 2001 UEFA Cup final against Liverpool, losing 5-4.
That same year was the last time Celta reached a final, when a side that included Valery Karpin, Alexander Mostovoi, Gustavo Lopez and Catanha lost to Real Zaragoza. Celta also had a defender by the name of Eduardo Berizzo. The club's current manager has shaped a successful side. An exciting one, too.
There is something about Celta. If you can watch them, do. Even Thursday's game, while not the best, was not a very 0-0 kind of 0-0. "Our plan is always the same: to have possession, to recover the ball, and to attack," Berrizzo has said, although variation has been added, as well as game management. On Thursday he was also talking about "intelligence."
There's a bit of Marcelo Bielsa about Berizzo -- he played under the Argentine coach -- and the best, most exciting games in Spain often involve Celta. Pushed high, going for the throat, swift and skilful, a stampede at times. It's hard to think of a more enjoyable game this season than October's 3-3 draw with Las Palmas, another team to make you tune in.
Last season Celta put four past Barcelona, overwhelming them, running at them from everywhere. "Barcelona were like a baby deer in the middle of the motorway," wrote Santi Gimenez in AS. "They saw the headlights, but paralysed by fear, instead of running, they stood there. Celta were the lorry, Barcelona became deer puree." This season, having lost their best player Nolito to Manchester City, Celta put four past Barcelona again. "Every robbery of the ball was an attack," Berizzo said.
There's more. Last year, they knocked Atletico Madrid out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals; this year, they knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals -- and deservedly so.
For Madrid, the good thing about being knocked out of the cup by Celta was that they had been knocked out of the cup by Celta; the teams meet in the league on Sunday and Berizzo admits that it is no longer his priority. The good news for Celta is that here they are, that they have achieved something special, whatever happens next. They have rebelled against reality and made people happy.
When striker John Guidetti looked up at Balaidos as it celebrated knocking out Madrid last week, he beamed. "Great game. Great party," he said. "I want to win for my players; they deserve it," Berizzo said and he was right.
But so do Alaves' players, the men who have twice drawn with Atletico this season -- the second time not so much holding them as hammering them -- and also won at the Camp Nou.
Now Celta and Alaves stand on the brink of the Copa del Rey final. Neither has the lead they sought, the goal they wanted, but the opportunity is there. "Not conceding makes us a very dangerous team away," Berizzo insisted. "For things to happen, you have to dream them first."
And, said Mallo: "We dream of winning a title every day."
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.