Reds gamble on Galician firebrand
If Liverpool were looking for a cut-price replacement for want-away striker Luis Suarez, Iago Aspas fits the bill in more ways than one. Just like the Uruguayan, Aspas has undoubted creative and goalscoring talent alongside a wayward streak that has more than once led him into trouble.
Aspas, who turns 26 on August 1, managed 12 goals and seven assists for Celta Vigo last season, and Liverpool had reportedly been tracking the attacker for months. The €9 million move was delayed, according to reports, by late haggles over his release clause and a bonus due to the player, which meant the local lad, and previous fan favourite, had to cancel a Caribbean holiday to make sure the move went through.
This would not be the first time in which a situation involving Aspas became more complicated than it really should have been. His most (in)famous showing in 2012-13 came in February's derby against Deportivo la Coruna, which began with the teams 20th and 19th in the table. Aspas had stirred things up in the local media the week before the game, and then half an hour in - with his side 0-1 down but dominating possession - was spotted aiming a sly headbutt at marker Carlos Marchena while both players were grounded after a challenge. Depor went on to win 3-1 against the ten men, and Aspas was banned for four games. Such petulance led his own team-mate Mario Bermejo to memorably lament: "When you go to bed with children, you wake up covered in piss."
Celta fans have learned over the years to take the rough with the smooth with Aspas. After joining Celta's youth ranks aged just eight, he was initially overshadowed by much-hyped older brother Jonathan, a Spanish underage star who made his first-team debut aged just 16 but now plays for Alki Larnaca in Cyprus. Iago had to wait longer for his first start, but it was a dramatic one: he scored twice against Alaves late in the 2008-09 season, a brace that ensured Celta did not drop to the third tier. The following two seasons were less spectacular, the player gradually nailing down a starting spot but scoring just nine goals in 66 Segunda games.
Aspas' fortunes changed when coach Paco Herrera – Rafa Benitez's former assistant at Anfield – settled on him as a lone front man, and built the rest of the side around him. The 2011-12 brought 23 Segunda division goals, including a number of crackers, as Celta were promoted back to the top flight. But again there were some 'distractions' along the way, such as an inflammatory local media interview before the season's first Galician derby followed by an underwhelming performance in the game.
Such issues are maybe a good reason for Aspas to try his luck outside of Galicia. The performances before his derby red card, such as the match-winning display at Rayo Vallecano in December, had even caught the eye of Vicente del Bosque, but the Spain coach admitted to his own doubts. "He was a player we were following," Del Bosque said. "We had good reports about him, but he was the protagonist in an action that stalled his season and did great damage to his team."
On his return from the ban Aspas played a key role in Celta's unlikely escape from relegation. There were vital goals against Athletic and Valladolid, and then the assist for Natxo Insa's winner in the last-day 1-0 win over Espanyol that ensured his side stayed up while Depor went down. He then left the Balaidos pitch in floods of tears, showing both his feeling for the Celta cause and that he was now moving on.
A transfer to Valencia had reportedly been agreed last winter, with then Los Che president Manuel Llorente agreeing to pay the €10 million buyout clause inserted in Aspas' contract just last September. But Llorente's successors at Mestalla were less keen, and the move was dropped. At that asking price, only two La Liga clubs can compete, and neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid showed any interest. Elsewhere, Chelsea, Swansea, Nantes, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica were all named in speculation, but Liverpool's willingness to meet Celta's asking price seems to have sealed the deal.
Given the Herrera connection, you would assume Liverpool know what they are getting. Aspas has almost always played as a lone front man in recent seasons, understandably as he was clearly Celta's biggest goal threat, but his best position might be coming from deeper. At 5' 10" and about 10 ½ stone, he is more a mobile link-man than traditional No. 9. He's more likely to beat his marker with a trick than sheer pace, and as comfortable laying on chances for others as shooting himself. A career record of about one goal in three games also suggests an all-rounder rather than an out-and-out poacher. You could see him linking well with Liverpool's other nifty, interchangeable attackers like Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge (not to mention Suarez, if he stays).
"I am relaxed, but at the same time very excited because I am making a very important step in my career," Aspas said last weekend. Brendan Rodgers' main challenge with his new attacker will be to ensure he stays relaxed, and does not get overexcited. The presence of Spanish players such as Pepe Reina, Suso and Jose Enrique, who spent a season on loan at Celta when Aspas was in the youth team, could help him settle. A firm hand from Rodgers, and not the indulgence previously shown to Suarez, might still be needed to keep him in check.
"What worries me is that Iago has birds in his head," Herrera, the most important figure in Aspas' career to date, said in December when the striker's form dipped amid the Valencia rumours. If those Galician birds find the Merseyside air to their liking, then Liverpool might have a bargain on their hands. However, €9 million looks quite a gamble on a player whose CV continues more missteps than top-flight experience.