Monday marked a year to the day that two goals from Iago Aspas helped his side to a spectacular 3-2 victory over Villarreal at Balaídos. The captain and life-long Celta fan was left in tears at the final whistle, such was his relief at having taken three points from a game in which defeat would have all but sealed his club’s relegation to the second tier of Spanish football.
In an interview last week for the regional newspaper Faro de Vigo, the captain recalled what an emotionally turbulent time that was for everyone involved at Celta. “I was really excited to play, and a bit nervous too, because we were more or less on the brink at the time.”
His nerves were not at all settled by then-manager Fran Escribá, who had informed him before the match that he was having doubts regarding whether or not the 31-year-old should participate following a three-month absence due to injury. In the end, Aspas would go on to play almost the full 90 minutes, was outstanding on the day and helped spark a turnaround that would ultimately save the Galicians’ season.
One year on, Celta once again find themselves battling relegation in what has been an extremely frustrating season for them. In early November, as the club sat second-bottom of the table having taken only eight points from their first 12 games, Escribá was shown the door and replaced by Óscar García. President Carlos Mouriño made it clear that he was willing to provide the new manager with the financial backing required to strengthen the side during the January transfer window, but any deal of substance failed to materialise. If anything, the winter period was marked by the loss of key midfielder Stanislav Lobotka, who left for Napoli in a deal reported to be worth around €24m.
Lobotka’s departure has been detrimental to Celta in more ways than one. Aside from being a player of considerable quality, the Slovak had a crucial role in the link-up play between midfield and attack. Operating as part of the double pivot system in defensive midfield alongside Pape Cheikh, Lobotka’s controlled style of play allowed Celta’s attacking midfielders to work to their full potential and provide Aspas with the kind of service that he has been largely starved of this season.
García’s side set themselves apart from those around them in the table in having lost only one league game in 2020, and haven’t been defeated at home since a 1-0 defeat against Getafe at the beginning of November. More than games that have been lost, Celta’s lowly position in the league ultimately comes down to games that haven’t been won.
Indeed, their performances since the turn of the year have had an air of organisation about them that was undoubtedly lacking in the first half of the season. However, defensive solidarity has been effectively cancelled out by their impotence as an attacking force. Os Celestes have scored just seven La Liga goals in 2020, and four of those came in two back to back games early last month.
Many of Celta’s supporters, who have in recent years become so used to living with the constant fear of relegation, seem confused by what’s happening on the park. Two consecutive 0-0 draws away from home against Granada and Getafe have added fuel to a popular fan theory that the team are now going out to draw games on the road, as they think themselves incapable of taking all three points outside of Balaídos.
An optimist would point out that this is better than at this stage last season when Celta were hemorrhaging goals on a weekly basis and constantly having to rely on the half-fit Iago Aspas to keep their heads above water. While this squad certainly seems more organised defensively than that of last season, they continue to be over-reliant on their captain, who has provided the winning goals in all but one of Celta’s five victories since the campaign started back in August.