21 November 2015

Turks against the Portuguese? Welcome to the Galician Derby

Joseph Sexton

My column for Back Page Football

Celta's Nolito in action against Depor last season

Peruse the international media, or the partisan locally based Marca and Mundo Deportivo and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was only one game taking place on the planet this weekend. Reams of paper and 17 scrolls down the page and you might find snugly hidden away something different. The 500 millionth (or so it feels) clásico this decade isn’t the only biggie today. Indeed, it’s arguable that it might not even be most interesting game of matchday 12 in La Liga.

No, Sir. That clash has been moved to an 18.15 local time kick-off to avoid the ridiculous situation we’ve had in recent years of UK viewers missing the opening quarter hour of that heavyweight duel. But skip further ahead in the day and there’s a real treat in store- the Galician derby, as Deportivo La Coruña host their fiercest rivals Celta Vigo. The turcos against the portugueses, as their respective slurs go, with the hosts in 6th and their opponents in 4th. Having endured stints in the second division and a few too many relegation battles for comfort in recent times, there’s no hyperbole when Celta’s left-back Jonny Castro describes it as “the biggest derby in years”.

It’s a particularly vicious derby, so much so that your correspondent has been dissuaded from making the hour and a half train journey north from Vigo-Guixar. Plenty will make the trip deep into enemy territory, however, with the allocation sold out. Normally the head of the supporters’ groups’ federation distributes tickets individually to the various fan groups in order to account for those making away trips but, with the Faro de Vigo reporting the security situation to be of the highest alert, they’ve washed their hands of the situation and left it to the club to dole them out. Things may  get hairy. Though, one hopes, not as hairy as these deplorable scenes when the clubs met in a promotion play-off back in the 1980s in Balaídos.

There’s history to this rivalry. Depor are the older of the two teams, but having spent several years more in the top flight, Celta have liked to see themselves as traditionally the bigger club. They made the step up first in the 1940s, reaching and losing a cup final. Depor have been as far down as the third tier, and only really began to establish themselves as a force upon being promoted in the 1990s. After coming close on several occasions, they finally won the La Liga title in 2000. Added to their Copa del Rey success in 1995, and spoiling Real Madrid’s centenary by winning that competition again the following decade, they remain the only Galician club to have won a national title.

It’s a curious quirk of history that both sides enjoyed arguably their most successful eras during that same period. Everyone remembers that Super Depor side, that which won at Old Trafford and Highbury and only fell to then not-yet Special One’s FC Porto in 2004's Champions League semi-finals. Having overturned a three goal deficit against PSG in 2001, they only went and did it again in that run, turning around a 4-1 first leg reverse against holders Milan in the quarter-finals. That’s arguably when the decline set in.

Down south, Celta boasted their finest ever side, including names such as Michel Salgado, Valery Karpin, Alexander Mostovoi, and the Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, father of Thiago and Rafinha Alcántara. Nicknamed ‘Euro Celta’, they twice made it to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup, and then the Champions League in 2003/4. But - and this is why many Celtistas fear a return to Europe - they were also relegated during that maiden campaign. They bounced back the following season, but within two years were down again, where they remained until three years ago.

Deportivo’s decline was slower but no less painful in its conclusion. Having been a regular fixture in the top six, and runners up on several occasions, they began to drift in the latter half of the last decade before going down to much sadness - well, outside of Vigo anyway - in 2011. They returned after a season, but couldn’t maintain their status, ironically being pipped to survival by Celta. Back up they came, surviving - barely - last season, to ensure another Galician derby for the current campaign.

Celta have been the revelation of the season so far. The building blocks were put in place by Luis Enrique two seasons ago. Though it’s hard to imagine now, the former Spanish international was considered damaged goods when chosen by chairman Carlos Mouriño to take the side forward following a fairly disastrous season in charge at Roma. It took them three months to win a game at home, but even early on the Asturian’s faith in his methods was unshakeable. Following a disappointing 1-1 draw with Granada in their first home outing, he opined “if we keep playing like this, we’ll win more than we lose”. Time proved him right.

Therefore he left big shoes to fill as he departed for the Camp Nou along with Rafinha, a key figure during that season. Once again, Mouriño showed a willingness to think outside the box in appointing the Argentine Eduardo Berizzo, who made his name in Chilean football, first as assistant to the man who launched a thousand coaching careers, Marcelo Bielsa and then later as a manager in his own right. 

As you would expect from one who learned from the charismatic former Argentina and Chile boss, high pressing and rapid attacks are central to Toto’s philosophy. But there’s also a pragmatic streak, something Bielsa lacks but others who’ve been inspired by him - chief amongst those Chile’s Copa América winning boss Jorge Sampaoli - have added to the armoury. Whereas Bielsa’s sides tend to flag, both in games and in campaigns, Berizzo isn’t as relentlessly one-dimensional and indeed, late goals have become something of a hallmark of this Celta side.

Last year, they finished a respectable 8th, but this year they’ve been on top and never outside the top four. They were brutal in dismantling Barcelona 4-1 in September, have won away to Sevilla (where only Real Madrid triumphed last term), won at the Madrigal against then leaders Villarreal, and after leaving that late they also pounced at the death to claim three points away to Real Sociedad having been behind twice to David Moyes’ side. No team in La Liga can boast a better away record this year.

Deportivo, on the other hand, have a fairly poor home record to date, registering just one win. Whereas Celta have spread the goals, with recently-capped Nolito on seven and the rejuvenated Liverpool reject Iago Aspas on six, the Coruña club have leaned heavily upon the shoulders of Lucas Pérez, who has chipped in with seven of his side’s goals. 

Celta’s defence is leaky, Depor’s mean. The former is only partially falsely inflated by their shocking 5-1 home defeat last time round to Valencia - a quite bizarre game where the visitors scored with every shot on target while the hosts spurned several clear openings - and have the fourth poorest rearguard in the division as a result.

Celta travel with a full complement of players available, whereas Depor are severely hindered by the absence of the Costa Rican Celso Borges in the middle of the park. One of the leading interceptors in the league, he was plying his trade in Sweden before starring in his side’s surprise run to the quarter-finals in Brazil. Deportivo took the plunge during the winter break and he’s been a mainstay of this side ever since.

It all points to goals. Recently, Luis Enrique described his former club as the most exciting team to watch in Europe this season and it wasn’t a mere platitude. Some weeks before, following that Balaídos humbling, Javier Mascherano chimed “it’s painful to lose like that, to be outplayed”. Depor too have been far from circumspect. 

Given the turgid nature of their football in the last five years, many an eyebrow was arched when, upon being appointed as manager, Victor Sánchez promised a more attacking style. They’ve delivered upon that, and if Celta’s current lofty status may appear something of a surprise, Depor’s is even more so. A sensible bet would be for both teams to score and a total of three goals or more, according to tipster Jonathan Cordingley. Everyone’s eyes will be on Madrid earlier in the day, but you could do worse with the rest of your Saturday than stay tuned in for La Liga’s late kick-off.

Probable teams

Deportivo: Germán Lux; Laure, Alejandro Arribas, Sidnei, Fernando Navarro; Fayçal Fajr, Pedro Mosquera; Federico Cartabia, Jonás Gutiérrez, Juanfran; Lucas Pérez

Celta: Sergio Álvarez; Hugo Mallo, Sergi Gómez, Andreu Fontás, Jonny; Daniel Wass, Augusto Fernández, Pablo Hernández; Fabián Orellana, Iago Aspas, Nolito

24 August 2015

Birthday boys Celta on top of the world in La Liga

My La Liga round-up for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton

It’s been a trying decade for Celta Vigo who celebrated the 92nd anniversary of their founding yesterday. The club came up in the 1990s to enjoy the most successful spell in their history- the era of Euro-Celta where they knocked out such giants as Liverpool and reaching the Copa del Rey final in 2001. They lost that and still haven’t got a major trophy to their name, but they housed some great players in that epoch and were regularly battling it out at the top of the league.

Celta celebrate against Levante

Of course that spell also coincided with the their bitter rivals Deportivo La Coruña’s golden age too, their neighbours to the north overshadowing them. Celta like to think of themselves as the more established side and they’ve certainly completed more seasons in the top flight than Depor, but as runners-up in 1994 in heartbreaking circumstance the Coruña side claimed the region’s first and only league title in 2000 and ruined Real Madrid’s centenary celebrations by denying them the Copa del Rey in their own back yard. They went on to be big hitters in the Champions League over several years, including a run all the way to the semi-finals before being knocked out by José Mourinho’s FC Porto in 2004. That was before the slow decline set in.

Down the road in Vigo, the decline was much more rapid.

That same season, Celta competed in the Champions League for the first time having finished fourth the season before. They got through the group stages when they then found themselves up against Arsenal’s invincibles side in the last 16. It was a close run affair, before Thierry Henry and company prevailed.

It should have been the highlight of the club’s history, but it turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare.

Celta, quite frankly, weren’t equipped to compete on multiple fronts and, in a season where they also made the cup quarter-finals, their league form suffered. There was always the sense that they could pull themselves away but instead the final third of the season saw a spectacular collapse and they finished 19th, and just like that, their 12 year stay in the top flight was over.

They bounced straight back up, but it was never the same and within two seasons they were down again. This time there was to be no rapid return. They grubbed around the Segunda, brushing with relegation to the third tier during 5 long seasons, before coming back up as runners up to Deportivo - who had also gone into free-fall by now - in 2012.

Since then, they’ve slowly established themselves as a competitive La Liga side once more. They just about missed out on relegation in that first season back- Depor went down instead- but since then the trajectory has been upward.

It started with the appointment of current Barcelona manager Luis Enrique in 2013. A big name, but  the Asturian coach was coming off a nightmare spell in Serie A with Roma where his side underperformed badly despite heavy investment from its new American owners.

They started slow under Luis Enrique. In their second game of the season, they dominated against a dogged Granada side but couldn’t take their chances while leading as the Andalusian side nicked a point at Balaídos. Luis Enrique was upbeat after that game, however. In the press room, he told the assembled journalists he’d been happy with his side’s overall display and attitude. “If we keep playing this way we’ll win more than we lose”.

Their were some groans that day at his side’s patient, passing approach and they took time getting going. They didn’t win a home game until December but signs that his team were getting it right were there a month before when - despite going down 3-0 - they gave the champions Barcelona one hell of a game. After this it all began to click into place and a team tipped for relegation soared up the table to finish 9th.

Despite Luis Enrique taking Rafinha Alcantara with him when he moved to Barcelona, Celta enjoyed another fine season last time round under his Argentine successor Eduardo Berizzo. A Bielsista to the core, Berizzo was wise enough to preserve the best of his predecessor’s work while fine-tuning aspects. They went one better, finishing 8th, beating Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Camp Nou, and playing some of the most attractive football in the division.

This summer they lost two key players in the shape of Michael Krohn-Dehli and the extremely promising Santi Mina. But they also welcomed back a local hero in the shape of Iago Aspas, who endured frustrating times at Liverpool and Sevilla in the last two seasons.

In a weekend where goals were at a premium, they kicked off their late Sunday game against Levante in Valencia last night. Things certainly seemed to be going their way when the hosts’ Simao was sent-off after just five minutes. but despite dominating the match statistically they found it hard going against a Levante side who sat deep to deny them space in the final third.

Much ink has been expended about the contractual situation of the Chilean Fabián Orellana but the schemer was there to give his side the lead in the 41st minute with after an incisive move down the wing. That followed a controversial disallowed goal for the hosts, who drew level against their nervy visitors shortly after the interval when Verza hit a superb free-kick.

As Berizzo would later concede, they lacked a cutting edge to complement their control of the match and it looked as if the game was slipping away from in the final quarter. But then, 13 minutes from time, another rapid move down the right saw the ball land at the feet of - who else -  Aspas in the six yard box and the striker made no mistake. Seven minutes, though it felt like even longer, of injury ensued, before the visitors emerged victorious.

The result - again, coming on the club’s 92nd birthday - means they’re top of the table in La Liga for the first in their history. And while there’s room for improvement, there was more good news for the club today as Orellana - who also assisted the winner - finally committed his future to the club after a summer of humming and hawing. 

Around the grounds

It certainly wasn’t a vintage opening weekend in the league, with the first seven matches yielding a paltry three goals in total. Valencia began sluggishly in drawing 0-0 with Rayo Vallecano while Atlético Madrid, who had been tipped to hockey their newly-promoted opponents could only scrape a 1-0 home victory against UD Las Palmas.

In Sunday’s opening game Barcelona gained a measure of revenge for their Super Cup trashing by edging out Athletic Bilbao 1-0 at San Mamés thanks to a second half Luis Suárez strike in a tense encounter where they never quite convinced. Real faltered at the first hurdle against promoted Sporting Gijón at el Moliñon and while Rafa Benítez’s side were incensed when Cristiano Ronaldo was denied a penalty, they also rode their luck as ex-Barça youth teamer Antonio Sanabria’s header crashed off the woodwork and appeared to cross the line but without the benefit of goal-line technology no goal was given.

If Aspas was the man of the week, then it was also pleasing to see another English flop open his account at the first time of asking. Roberto Soldado endured a nightmare spell at Tottenham following his big money move two summers ago, but he scored for fun in his time and Valencia and gave his new club, Villarreal the lead against real Betis. There was to be no fairytale ending here and Betis - short of new signing Rafeal Van der Vaart - battled back to earn a draw through a Ruben Castro strike three minutes from time.

Results: Málaga 0-0 Sevilla, Deportivo 0-0 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 1-0 Getafe, Atlético Madrid 1-0 Las Palmas, Rayo Vallecano 0-0 Valencia, Athletic Club 0-1 Barcelona, Sporting Gijón 0-0 Real  Madrid, Levante 1-2 Celta Vigo, Real Betis 1-0 Villarreal

Monday: Granada v Eibar

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn