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