Celta Vigo came so close to the most improbable of Europa League finals
Sergio Romero thought Claudio Beauvue was going to shoot, and when he didn't, he thought it was over. He was right; it was over -- just not the way he feared. The Old Trafford clock showed 95:52, with 96:00 to play. The ball went from Hugo Mallo to Tucu Hernández to Beauvue and then beyond the Manchester United goalkeeper, leaving him stranded, his goal exposed. "I saw the pass and said to myself, 'I'm dead,'" he admitted.
Six yards out, it fell to John Guidetti: Super Guidetti, who'd led the party when Celta knocked Real Madrid out of the Copa del Rey final, beaming "fiesta!" in his touchline interview. The striker from Sweden (where the final was set to be held), who declared himself galego, the man who moved from the beach to the city centre because he didn't just want to live in Vigo, he wanted to live Vigo, the Johnny G, Johnny G, of that song, his song. "Will you marry me? You mean the world to me."
This moment meant the world to all of them. Almost a hundred years old, they'd never had a moment such as this. "It was almost historic," Gustavo Cabral said. Almost -- but not quite. They had come this close. The ball arrived a fraction behind him, and he couldn't move his feet quickly enough; it bounced off his legs and was hacked away. The chance had gone, the last chance.
They collapsed to the floor. Guidetti was curled up, head in the turf. Iago Aspas's eyes filled with tears. It wasn't to be; Celta de Vigo had gone further than they had ever gone in Europe, where they hadn't played for a decade, but they were going no further. "What a pity that last move was!" Aspas said.
They gathered in a circle on the turf. High in the stands at Old Trafford, around 3,000 Celta fans applauded them. Afterward, so did Jose Mourinho; he sent them his best wishes, "a hug." "They were the better team. They were fantastic," the United manager admitted. "If I was them, I would go home sad but with my head held high."
Eduardo Berizzo said: "I am proud of my team. We tied up a powerful opponent." One newspaper reprinted that famous quote: "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."
If Celta had died, it had happened at home, where they concluded that they hadn't been Celta. They showed United too much respect. They lacked that aggressiveness and braveness that defined them.
The talk had been of Afouteza, a word that was written up all over the city. It speaks to the idea of "fighting against the odds." Maybe it reminded them too much of the odds and what they were up against. This was their first European semifinal; it was United's 16th. Celta had never played a bigger match. Perhaps expressing how big an occasion it was, how huge their opponent -- and there's a genuine reverence toward United in Spain, one of the game's giants, arguably the biggest of them all -- had rebounded against them, with the message internalised.
As supporters headed into Balaídos for the first leg, they were each handed a scarf: half Celta, half United. Held up, there was a lot of red in the stands. On the pitch, there seemed to be as well. United were faster, higher, stronger, better.
Thursday's second leg was different. Celta de Vigo had gone to Old Trafford and gone for Manchester United. Sixteen shots, 67 percent of the ball, more than twice as many passes, the total reaching up beyond 600. "They dared to challenge the King in his own home," one report ran. It called them "revolutionaries."
"A group of mates, a bunch of lads, went to Old Trafford and took the ball off footballers who cost €40, €50... €120 million. We barricaded them in at their own home," Aspas said. It was said not with bitterness but with pride.
Why didn't Celta make it to the final? Because not making it is normal. More numbers: their starting XI cost less than €17 million, United's cost €306 million. They didn't make it, and nor did anyone else from Spain, and that basic fact stands for the others too -- well, sort of. Villarreal had been beaten in Rome. But then Athletic Bilbao had been beaten in Nicosia, of all places. They had dominated but blew it somehow -- well ahead of time too.
Celta came second in their group behind Ajax. At the start of the season, Berizzo had said, "It's a nice competition, but our reality is the league." Yet they progressed, and like United, priorities shifted. They were alone in doing so, serving as Spain's sole representatives in the tournament. Villarreal and Athletic didn't make it past the Round of 32. Sevilla were not parachuted in from the Champions League, which they reached by winning this competition last year, completing a hat trick.
This time, for the first time in four years, a Spanish team will not win the Europa league. There are none in the final. Why not? Because that's probably the way it should be. Because this is natural. Because Romero he thought he was dead, but he wasn't.
Perhaps there is a shift, though to suggest so is premature and in all probability La Liga's sides (Villarreal? Athletic? Real Sociedad? Alavés?) will compete next year. Just as likely, this unusual Spanish absence was a one-off, a quirk, a mistake. Athletic will feel that their failure to go further was all in a single moment.
If it is reality intervening, beyond Madrid and Barcelona at least, the surprise might not be so much that no Spanish teams reached this final or even that so few made it to the final rounds this time, though that is striking, as so many have over the past few years. The Premier League's money had long eclipsed La Liga's, and while the financial situation is getting better in Spain, it is an inescapable reality that it can't compete with England. If anything, that gap is in fact growing.
In that context, you could argue that the surprise was not that Celta lost to United but that they were in a position where they might not. It might be that Celta were there at Old Trafford, in a semifinal for the first time in their history. Shakhtar Donetsk, FK Krasnodar and Genk were defeated, and then came United. And it came to that last second, 6 yards from the line.
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.