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