Liverpool spell made Iago Aspas a meme in England, but exceptional Celta Vigo star is now LaLiga’s most important player
For some people outside of Spain, Iago Aspas remains nothing more than a meme, a GIF of a badly taken corner from five years ago.
A pity, because as he reaches the twilight of his career, the Galician is one of those few players it is always worth changing the channel to watch.
He may just be LaLiga’s most important player at present; so pivotal, in fact, that he’s almost single-handedly deciding the outcome of the Spanish relegation battle.
Aspas is exceptional. Exceptional enough that, despite playing for a team that has been scrapping it out around the drop zone since the turn of the year, and despite missing 11 of 34 rounds of fixtures, he is on course to finish as the top Spanish goalscorer in LaLiga for the third consecutive year.
If he does win the Trofeo Zarra once again, he will become only the second player to do so more than twice in their career.
The other is David Villa. Not exactly bad company to keep.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there are two Celtas these days. The Celta with Iago and the one without.
The good Celta… and the awful Celta.
When Aspas first got injured back on December 22, his goals and assists had propelled them to 10th in the table. Without him, during Aspas’ absence, Celta went on to win only one of five matches, tumbling all the way down to 18th.
When he suffered a further setback things got truly catastrophic, and they couldn’t win a single match in five further rounds.
There was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to it all – without their talisman on the pitch, it felt like Celta had accepted defeat before a ball was kicked.
Balaidos seemed to be waiting for the talisman to return, the league season apparently on pause.
Except it wasn’t – as the matches ran down, the chances of escaping the drop did too.
No one would envy the pressure on the 31-year-old’s shoulders when he finally made his comeback against Villarreal at the end of March, but the evidence of how he reacted to it was conclusive. Celta won for the first time in six matches. Aspas scored his team’s first and then the winner late in the game, before coming off to rest, his job done.
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Aspas breaking down into tears as he took his place on the bench is perhaps the most gripping image of the Spanish season.
Special players don’t just give sides a momentary lift, they continue to deliver, and Aspas’ return wasn’t just a one-off bounce.
In their playmaker’s first three games back, Celta picked up seven points from an available nine.
When he missed a trip to Atlético Madrid through suspension, the Galicians lost.
When he returned in a relegation six-pointer against Girona, they won.
And he scored. And provided an assist. As day follows night, when Aspas is playing, Celta perform.
When Celta took to the pitch in Barcelona against Espanyol on Wednesday night they did so not in the relegation zone, but aware that with four rounds to go and only a one-point cushion, taking something from the clash was absolutely vital.
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From the whistle the game plan was clear, the same as it always is now: get the ball to the number 10. A good plan it is too. Recent performances have created a fear around Aspas that is rare for players outside of the top clubs. The first ball that almost fell to him in the box caused a collective gasp from the Espanyol support.
Seconds later he was dribbling, surging into the area again and drawing opponents before teeing up a teammate for a shot. A drop of a shoulder, a few step-overs to beat his man in a standing sprint, and he was off once more. Celta looked like they had signed an entire new team, so huge is the impact of one man on their confidence and emotional intelligence.
‘Bloody Iago Aspas,’ muttered an Espanyol fan walking past the press area at half-time.
The home team had drawn first blood through Wu Lei, but no one had any doubts over who could turn the game on its head. A guy who doesn’t switch off for a second.
The second half was a 20-minute rope-a-dope, Espanyol pounding away without success before Celta’s own heavyweight sprung his trap. When a ball broke deep in the away half, wily old Aspas was alert. Off he went, driving up the pitch with a hunger more befitting of a youth player than a club legend who has nothing to prove.
Attacking midfielder Oscar Melendo had been left to do the marking as Aspas cut in from the wing. The outcome was inevitable. Sucking in his man with his eyes, the 31-year-old opened up just enough space to pick out Maxi Gómez, unmarked, for the equaliser.
The remarkable feats of Iago Aspas
Aspas returned from a calf injury on March 30, and he’s scored or assisted at least one goal in each of the five matches he has played since
- Celta 3-2 Villarreal (two goals)
- Huesca 3-3 Celta (one goal, two assists)
- Celta 3-1 Sociedad (two goals)
- Celta 2-1 Girona (one goal, one assist)
- Espanyol 1-1 Celta (one assist)
Maxi grinned from ear to ear, pointing knowingly at his accomplice; the striker had stopped scoring for two months without his companion around, but now he’s back, with three in six.
When Aspas was finally withdrawn in injury time it was to a resounding chorus of whistles and boos from the RCDE Stadium.
It was the most noise the home fans had made all night; a true sign Aspas had really gotten under their skin, ruined their evening just as he did for Girona, Real Sociedad, Huesca and Villarreal.
The attacker’s personal tally now stands at six goals and five assists in five matches.
In the middle of Celta’s lowest moment last winter, Aspas rejected an offer to triple his salary and go to China. This month he instead extended his contract with Celta until 2023.
Already an icon, perhaps their greatest ever player, there will inevitably be a statue of him outside of Balaidos one day.
If Aspas can single-handedly save Celta from the drop this year, they may as well start building it now.
Source: SportsLatest TS