Thursday, 27 April 2017

Iago Aspas: The Hometown Hero

To many in England, Iago Aspas is something of a joke. His name is used synonymously with poor corners after the infamous incident against Chelsea, and his failure to make the grade at Liverpool has led to a presumption that he is simply not very good. Talk to someone in Galicia, however, and you will get a very different impression. His first spell at Celta de Vigo saw him contribute heavily to promotion and then almost single-handedly keep them in the top flight. Since 2015 he has picked up where he left off, now spearheading a successful European campaign.

Iago Aspas was born in Moaña, a small municipality with a population of just under 20,000. It was there that he embarked upon his footballing career, briefly playing for local youth side CD Moaña and then for Santa Mariña. He quickly outgrew the clubs, but did not stray far from his hometown: at the age of eight he made the half-hour journey to Vigo to join up with Celta’s youth ranks. Such was his drive, he lied about his age to be admitted to the side: at the time Celta were only willing to recruit players who were at least nine years old. Wracked with guilt by his deceit, he immediately got his parents to call the club and confess what he had done: the coaches, having seen Aspas more than hold his own against the older boys, were happy to waive their rule. Aspas made sure they did not regret their decision. He made steady progress; at the age of sixteen he was considered good enough for a loan move to another local side, Rápido Bouzas.

The then-director of the club was Javier Maté, who enjoyed a short stint at Real Madrid in his playing career. He spoke highly of his loan star, but also questioned his attitude and temperament at times. He said that “I had to accept him with virtues and defects” – as a raw, talented youth, Aspas may have had some issues with discipline and temperament. That side of his game still exists, but it is safe to say he has worked hard to control it: now it is easier to see the little boy who didn’t want to lie than it is to see the fiery youth who caused a stir at Rápido.

That is not to say that Aspas has ever lacked drive. Certainly he had the motivation to make the grade at Celta – on his return from his loan spell he quickly made his way into Celta B. There, he continued to impress and develop: two years later, in 2008, he was handed his senior debut. He was made to wait for his next appearance, but on 6th June 2009 he cemented himself firmly in the senior squad. Brought on as a substitute against Alavés, he scored in the 81st and 94th minutes to secure a vital 2-1 win for his team. Indeed, the three points proved crucial to Celta’s survival in the second tier of Spanish football. After this he featured with some regularity, but it was not until the 2011/12 season when Aspas truly became the figurehead of his boyhood club. This was the campaign where Celta returned to the top flight, following a five-year absence: Aspas scored 23 league goals along the way. He was outscored only by Leonardo Ulloa, who at the time was playing for Almeria. Aspas was voted the best forward in the league, and on this personal high he entered La Liga.

His progression did not stop there. Any fears that the talismanic forward would struggle with the step up were quickly allayed: in fact, he thrived. The same could not be said of the rest of the team, with the result that Celta had a massive struggle on their hands to avoid relegation. They managed to do it, however, confirming safety on the last day of the season with the help of an Iago Aspas assist. Staggeringly, Aspas had a goal contribution for 50% of the goals scored by Celta across the campaign – he had dragged his team to safety. This was in spite of a four-game ban he picked up for a headbutt in the Galician derby against Deportivo; it looked for a while as though Aspas’ old ill-discipline literally rearing its head might cost Celta their La Liga status, but all was forgiven in the jubilant scenes following the confirmation of the team’s safety. Far from the villain, Aspas was the hero of his hometown club.

As it happened, he was to be a departing hero. His performances had not gone unnoticed by the footballing community, and then-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers swooped to sign the Celta man. The deal was rumoured to be worth around £9 million. Based on his pre-season, it looked as though that was going to represent a bargain for the English giants – Sturridge had picked up an injury on international duty, and Aspas stepped up to the plate with a succession of good performances. On his debut against Preston North End he notched up a goal and an assist: by the end of pre-season there were plenty of fans clamouring for him to be accommodated into the first team. Initially, he was: he got the assist for Sturridge’s goal in the 1-0 win over Stoke on the opening day. Sadly, things went dramatically downhill from here. In many ways, Aspas was a victim of circumstances. He had the misfortune to come to Liverpool at a time when Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling were all at the club: the four of them rapidly secured a lockdown on the attacking positions, meaning Aspas was presented with limited opportunities. He was never really given a chance to adapt to the Premier League. This was only exacerbated by his limited knowledge of English – the man who still ate daily in his parents’ house during his time at Celta found himself thrust into an entirely new world, and was never truly given help to acclimatise.

This lack of patience was epitomised by the deal Liverpool made at the beginning of the 2014/15 campaign. Suarez had moved on to Barcelona, so on paper it was the perfect time for Aspas to show what he could do – instead, the club shipped him off to Sevilla on a loan with an obligatory purchase clause. Perhaps the damage done by the fateful corner against Chelsea was irreversible; whatever the reason, Aspas’ time in England was prematurely over. In Sevilla, he showed glimpses of his quality once more. He scored hat-tricks in both legs of the Copa Del Rey tie against CE Sabadell FC, the second of which was completed in just four minutes. Indeed, he ended the competition as joint top-scorer alongside Neymar. However, his league minutes were once again limited. By a stroke of misfortune he once again found himself at a club with an unusual array of attacking talent: he struggled to regularly displace Carlos Bacca and Kevin Gameiro. In consequence, having bought Aspas at the end of the season as per their agreement with Liverpool, Sevilla sold him back to Celta de Vigo on the very same day.

In many ways, it was as though Aspas had never been away. He immediately settled back in at his boyhood club, and in September bagged a brace in a shock 4-1 victory over Barcelona at the club’s Balaidos home. Five more goals followed in October, leading to Aspas winning the Player of the Month award. He ended the season with 14 league goals, even more than in his last season in La Liga three years previously: it was enough to secure Europa League qualification for the team that had been languishing in the second division when Aspas burst onto the scene. The team have impressed, managing to reach the semi-final stages of the competition this year: they will face Manchester United. Even if they fail to upset the odds it will still be their best ever finish in a European competition – unsurprisingly, Aspas has been instrumental. He scored in a group stage draw against Standard Liege and netted a crucial goal in the late victory over Shakhtar in the round of 32. He also got on the scoresheet to put the tie against Krasnodar to bed, and found the target in the eventual 4-3 aggregate win over Genk. This means he is yet to fail to score in a knockout tie: he will be looking to continue that streak in the semi-final.

He will not need to draw on any remaining vestiges of loyalty to Liverpool to find motivation for that tie: he is a Celta man through and through, and will be determined to earn his side a historic victory. It was unfortunate that things did not work out for him during his time in England, but his eventual return to Celta has enabled him to cement his place as a hometown hero. Ultimately, Aspas has always been comfortable closer to home – when he can focus purely on his football, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

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