The renaissance of Iago Aspas

The renaissance of Iago Aspas

GOOGLE IAGO ASPAS and you will find yourself presented predominantly with the words ‘Liverpool’ and ‘flop’. Google Iago Aspas and press spacebar and you will be given the suggestion ‘Iago Aspas corner’.

The fact that he is most well-known – at least in the UK – for the above is misleading. When the average Premier League fan nonchalantly glances at the La Liga top scorers list, expecting nothing less than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez domination, they may not be immediately surprised. But glancing further down the list of established, reputable goalscorers, they might recognise the name of someone less revered, someone whose spell in England was brief, and so forgettable it was memorable – Iago Aspas.

‘That’s that Liverpool flop,’ they may think. To categorise Aspas based off a mere 15-game spell in the Premier League would be unfair, but that, unfortunately, is the nature of the popularity of that particular league. In Spain, though, things have been entirely different, in particular at Celta Vigo, a club with which he appears to have an undefinable connection.

This season, since returning to Célticos, Aspas has 14 league goals; more than Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale. To even offer his name in comparison to such players when he was at Liverpool would have been laughed at, but not anymore.

Perhaps it’s because Celta were his boyhood team, where he made his name to eventually ascend to the heights of Liverpool. Or perhaps it’s simply that his game suits Spain far more than it does the stereotypical physical, intense English game. That’s not to say he shies away from confrontation. Aspas has been known to be temperamental – an inherently emotionally driven character – and it’s these characteristics which first endeared him to the Celta fans.

Born in the modest municipality of Moana, 19 kilometres from Vigo, Aspas grew up idolising Celta players, intending one day to don the distinctive light blue shirt. At just eight-years-old his desire to play football was insatiable, but it seemed there would be an immediate setback. The minimum age to trial for the academy at Celta was nine, news that brought Aspas to tears. His uncle, though, had different ideas. “Say you’re nine and you’re in,” he said. And he was.

Aspas tried out for the youth academy with no football boots, lying about his age, a deceitful menace, but a talented one. His ability was no surprise; a football had been constantly at his feet throughout his childhood, and his family was one of reasonable football pedigree. The aforementioned uncle, Cristóbal Juncal, was a professional player, as was his cousin Aitor. Still, Aspas expected to be rejected. He wasn’t – Celta didn’t care about his age, he had shown enough.

Such was his obsession with Celta, he persuaded his brother Jonathan, five years older and also showing promise, to join the club alongside him. Together they worked their way up, the elder sibling making his debut at the age of just 16 in the Uefa Cup against Benfica. Iago was inspired by Jonathan, but there was no away that he would be overshadowed.

It’s fitting that a player with such an unadulterated desire to play for one club did so – and continues to do so – with such success. The tale of Aspas’ first spell with Celta is one of footballing romanticism, almost a guideline for any youngster with a dream to follow. It began with his promotion to the Celta B team.

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Under coach Javier Maté, Aspas progressed well over his three-year spell with Celta B and eventually reached the required level to make the move to the first team. He had been by no means prolific, but the diminutive, wily forward was improving, demonstrating his technical prowess ever more frequently.

If his Celta debut against Salamanca in 2008 was underwhelming, his second appearance the following season was nothing less than sensational. The date was 6 June 2009, and Celta faced the unthinkable – relegation to the third tier of Spanish football. Languishing at the bottom of the Segunda División, only a win against Alavés would give them a chance of survival.

With 80 minutes played, one of the biggest games in the club’s history was goalless, with disaster and potential economic ruin looming ever more ominously. Aspas had started on the bench, but by now he was on the pitch. He timed a run expertly towards the six-yard box, meeting an excellent cross with a guided header, sending the keeper the wrong way and prompting wild celebrations. The shirt was off, the microphone by the corner flag was used as a prop in his euphoria; it seemed the little-known 21-year-old had rescued his side from the brink.

Eight minutes later, however, Alavés were level and disaster had made a comeback. Hope seemed lost, Aspas’ first goal for his club entwined with heartbreak. The youngster, though, was not done. In the fourth minute of injury time Celta launched the ball forward in desperation; the keeper was forced into a save but the ball dropped at the feet of a waiting Aspas. He tapped in, and this time the euphoria was irrepressible.

Such an immediate impact was almost symbolic of what was later to come. Aspas had already become something of a club icon with his brace against Alavés, and, having already played a huge part in saving Celta from the drop, he would later fire them back to La Liga.

First, though, Aspas would have to prove himself in the club’s first team. Then coach Eusebio Sacristán worked hard to develop his talent and ensure that his emotions didn’t get the better of him, and though he managed just five goals, that season was crucial in his progress with Celta.

The following campaign was Paco Herrera’s first in charge of Celta. Aspas found opportunities less frequent, Herrera preferring the duo of Quique De Lucas and David Rodríguez in his attack. Aspas’ performances when called on had shown glimpses of his ability, and it was in the 2011-12 season that he became the focal point – the head of a fluid, creative Celta forward line.

Herrera had opted to change things, utilising a 4-3-3 with Aspas as a false 9. This proved to be a masterstroke, both in terms of the team and the player’s progression. Aspas would end the season with 23 league goals, instrumental as Celta finished in second place, as the league’s top scorers, and earned promotion back to La Liga after a five-year absence. Not only had his delicate left-foot prevented his beloved Celta from falling into the abyss of the third tier, it had now proved the catalyst for their return to the big stage, a step forward that the club would impressively build on.

Celta’s first season back in La Liga was understandably a struggle. They avoided relegation by just one point, with Herrera sacked in February 2013 and replaced by Abel Resino. For all the difficulties, Aspas had again been a standout performer. He ended the season with 12 league goals, an excellent total for a team so low in the division, and with just 37 goals throughout the season. Once again, his finishing had proved vital.

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That season was not without controversy for Aspas, however. His confrontational, combative nature had been carefully kept under wraps by his coaches as he developed at Celta, but it remained beneath the surface, ready to present itself in a moment of intense pressure. That moment came in a heated derby against Deportivo, a game clearly of equal importance to Aspas as it is to the passionate Celista fans.

This is a player who, without any hesitation, has categorically dismissed ever playing for Deportivo, and claimed that he wouldn’t even consider getting a girlfriend from A Coruña. “Some people don’t tell the truth in football,” he said. “I do.” He had managed his temperamental side well prior to the derby, but he was unable to contain himself for longer than half an hour. Squaring up to Carlos Marchena, with his side already 1-0 down, Aspas appeared to lean into a headbutt and was sent off. Celta would eventually lose the derby 3-1.

There was a sense that he had let the club down to an extent after that defeat, although he and Celta bounced back to avoid relegation. Then Liverpool came calling, impressed by the player whose record had overshadowed almost everyone else associated with La Liga’s bottom half clubs.

He made the move to Anfield for £7 million, a transfer met largely with loose optimism from the well-informed Liverpool fans, and understandable disappointment from those of a Celta perspective. For them, life without Aspas was one of uncertainty, such had been his almost constant and unparalleled impact in the seasons prior to his departure. Aspas himself was visibly upset. At an official press conference to mark his departure, he couldn’t prevent the tears flowing.

Aspas’ start at Liverpool was promising. During pre-season he was the club’s top scorer, putting in a number of impressive performances and catching the eye of the fans that knew little of him prior to his arrival. “He’s not always easy on the eye but when you actually monitor how efficient Iago is, he’s an incredibly effective player,” manager Brendan Rodgers said. “The idea was that Aspas would give another dimension to our attacking play and he’s done that. He creates goals and scores goals.” This was prior to the season’s start, however, and things would noticeably change once the football turned competitive.

As previously mentioned, a botched corner against Chelsea was what best encapsulated his Liverpool career. It’s not clear what he was attempting, but Aspas effectively passed the ball to the welcoming Willian on the edge of the box late on when Liverpool were chasing a goal, receiving looks of bewilderment and exasperation from his team-mates waiting expectantly for an actual delivery. “What a terrible corner,” said Martin Tyler in his commentary, as gasps of frustration echoed around Anfield. The knives were out. Social media was typically unforgiving, a simple mistake made all the more embarrassing.

The corner itself wasn’t the problem, it was what had preceded it. Aspas had not, and did not, score a single league goal for Liverpool, and he had been a shadow of the player so lively and gifted in a Celta Vigo shirt. Clearly he had not settled in England, later revealing that he had missed his family and friends back at home.

There was also the factor of language; Aspas had not learnt to speak English, making communication and integration difficult. Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge were both in form, leaving the Spaniard on the periphery. Almost nothing had gone to plan during his brief spell with Liverpool – unlike at Celta, it seemed fate was demanding he leave. “If the situation remains like this, I think that for both the club and for me the best outcome is an exit,” he said.

The outcome was an exit and the destination was Sevilla on loan. Back to an element of familiarity, the comfort of La Liga – no cold, windy Tuesday night trips to Stoke, no coaches on the touchline screaming ‘get stuck in’, away from the brutal, unforgiving Premier League where only the brave survive. Or not. 

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Again, Aspas found himself struggling. Over a season of just 16 league appearances, he scored two La Liga goals, with Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro keeping him away from regular football on this occasion. There was something of a silver lining at Sevilla in that he was the Copa del Rey top scorer, with seven goals in five cup games, which included an astonishing four-minute hat-trick. It was a reminder of his talent, after two turgid and ultimately underwhelming seasons away from Celta.

Sevilla opted to make the loan move from Liverpool permanent at the end of the 2014-15 season, but then Celta sensed the opportunity to bring back their former talisman. Aspas needed little persuasion. He was back where he belonged – a footballing ordeal had reached its conclusion – and he was happy, perhaps the key factor for a player with such a palpable connection between emotion and performance.

“The club and I both felt that this was the best moment to return,” Aspas said. “We both made a massive effort and I’m very grateful.  When I said goodbye, I said I was leaving the biggest club in the world and I’ve come back sooner than anyone thought. I’ve been through difficult times after these past two years, I need to regain my confidence because I went through some rough patches. It would’ve been easier to continue playing for those clubs I had a contract with, earning money and sitting at home. But I like to enjoy my football, play and that’s why, although I had other options, the best choice was to come back home.”

Celta had made huge strides in Aspas’ absence, first under Luis Enrique, who took them to a ninth-place finish, and then Argentine Eduardo Berizzo – the club’s coach since Enrique’s departure to Barcelona – who went one better and finished in eighth while Aspas was languishing at Sevilla. “Why can’t we dream about the Europa League?” Aspas said.

In fact, they could do more than dream. Celta finished sixth in 2015/16 to qualify for Europe, with Aspas back in the goals – 14 to his name. It seemed he and Celta were meant to be; the progression of both club and player together has been staggering. From where it had all started, it was almost inconceivable that they would reach the Europa League and become a consistent top half La Liga side. They had done so in commendable style, playing a brand of football that clearly suits Aspas’ technically gifted game.

Last season, things went up another level. Approaching his 30s, Aspas has been in the form of his life, eradicating the unwanted chapters in his career and attempting to further establish himself as a Celta legend. By December he had scored 10 goals in 10 consecutive games for club, and, notably, country. His prolific form had seen him earn his first Spain call-up in November, which he marked with an excellent goal at the expense of England.

Prior to that, he had played his part in a 4-1 derby demolition of Deportivo. This time he was twice kissing the Celta badge, no headbutts needed. Aspas’ name was alongside Messi, Suárez and Ronaldo, inevitably catching the attention of those who had forgotten of his existence. Perhaps it’s not overly surprising. The more settled he gets at Celta, the better he seems to perform.

Celta is a modest club and would likely laugh at any suggestions of a top-four finish, but is it really out of the question? With Aspas boasting the form he’s in, and vigorously leading the line for his boyhood club, the unthinkable may not be unachievable. Certainly, if such success was achieved, any future Google searches for Iago Aspas would feature the words ‘Liverpool’ and ‘flop’ with far less regularity.

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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