When Manchester United drew Celta Vigo in the Europa League semi-final it had fans looking at Wikipedia, checking Whoscored for data, and reaching for the long-lost Galician guide books. Celta may not be one of La Liga’s giants, nor doing particularly well this season, but it is a team that has dispatched some decent quality opposition in this year’s competition. Celta is also the club that stands between United and a date in Stockholm at the end of May – and possible Champions League qualification.
Celta reached the Europa League semi-final after beating Genk in the quarters, FC Krasnodar in the Round of 16, and Shakhtar in the last 32. Os Celestes – the Sky Blues – faced Panathinaikos, Standard Liege, and Ajax in the group stages.
It has been far from a smooth ride though, with Celta finishing second behind Ajax in Group G, having drawn three of the club’s six games. Celta lost at home to Shakhtar in the first knockout round, before winning 2-0 in Ukraine. The tie with Krasodar was a little smoother, with the Spanish side winning 4-1 over two legs. In the quarters Celta beat Genk at Balaídos before drawing in Belgium.
A brief history
Founded in 1923, Royal Club Celta de Vigo has spent around half its 93 year existence outside the top division. Based in the north eastern coastal province of Galicia, Celta has never won La Liga or the Copa del Rey.
Much of the club’s history has been in the mid ranks of La Liga or in the Segunda. The club enjoyed a brief period of success in the mid-2000s, finishing fourth in La Liga during the 2002/3 season and qualifying for the Champions League – only to be knocked out by Arsenal the following year.
In earlier seasons “EuroCelta” enjoyed several campaigns in the second tier of European competition, enjoying a 4-1 UEFA Cup aggregate win over Liverpool in 1998/99, thrashing 4-0 Juventus in the same competition the following season, and then following that up with a 7-0 aggregate win over Benfica.
Yet, by 2007 Celta was no longer the force of old, finishing 18th in La Liga and suffering relegation to the Segunda División. Heavily in debt and on the cusp of administration, the club sold many of its better players – the legacy being five seasons outside the top flight, before Os Celestes earned promotion in 2012.
After narrowly avoiding relegation the following campaign, Celta hired now Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, sparking a renaissance that has taken the club back into the upper echelons of Spanish and European football.
The optimism of last season’s sixth place finish hasn’t lasted, with manager Eduardo Berizzo’s team slipping to 11th at the time of writing. It has been a campaign of little consistency, with 16 defeats telling the story of a team that has a soft defensive under-belly. Celta certainly won’t make it back into European football through the league, with the team currently 24 points off Champions League qualification, and 10 off seventh placed Real Sociedad.
The campaign could hardly a got off to a worse start, with three defeats in succession leaving the team bottom at the end of August. The pattern has repeated in the past month, although Berizzo has heavily rotated with the Europa League taking a clear precedent.
In the Copa Del Rey, Berizzo’s team enjoyed a run to the semi-final, beating Real Madrid and Valencia along the way before losing over two legs to little Alavés, the side that punches far above its weight in Spanish football.
Coach – Eduardo Berizzo
Argentine Berizzo has enjoyed a fine spell since taking over from Enrique in 2014, enjoying eighth and sixth-placed finishes in La Liga. The attacking and entertaining style is born out in the results, with Celta drawing just five games in the league all season.
It is been a positive return to the club, for whom Berizzo once played towards the end of a journeyman career. The 47-year-old began his coaching career as a student under the legendary Marcelo Bielsa with the Chilean national team, before he won the Chilean league as a manager in his own right with O’Higgins in 2013.
Tactically, Berizzo is a Bielsa protege, with his team playing at pace, enjoying plenty of possession, and focusing on a high-pressing game. Typically, the team lines up in a Euro-standard 4-2-3-1 formation. The weakness is in defence, with the team far too open despite that high press. Celta has conceded 24 goals in the past 15 across all competitions.
Berizzo is not without controversy though having made homophobic comments about his time as a player in France, claiming that “there are so many homosexual players there, they always provoke you, they touch your thighs, your bum, to see if you will give some kind of signal. I feel disgusted when a homosexual shares the same shower.”
Celta’s recent success is built on the twin ex-Premier League strikeforce of Iago Aspas and John Guidetti. Neither made it in England, with Aspas struggling at Liverpool – no goals in 14 league appearances – and Guidetti failing to force his way into the Manchester City team despite several loan moves away.
Aspas returned to Spain first on loan at Sevilla, where he also struggled and then at his hometown club of Celta. Since then Aspas has become the team’s talisman and his 24 goals in all competitions this season has earned the player a place in the Spanish national team – including a goal against England at Wembley last year. It is some progress for a player whose career was heading south just three season’s ago.
Meanwhile, Guidetti joined City as a teenager before playing at Burnley, Stoke City, and Celtic on loan. After joining Celta on a free transfer in 2015, Guidetti has scored 27 goals in 78 games for the club.
In midfield, winger Pione Sisto scored for Midtjylland when United faced the Danish side in last season’s Europa League, although he has not always been a first team regular this season. Theo Bongonda, a 21-year-old Belgian winger, offers genuine pace from wide areas – he is likely to be a real factor if the tie is still close at Old Trafford. The playmaker is Daniel Wass, who can work in both wide areas and a number 10. Guiseppe Rossi, the former United striker, is at the club but recuperating from knee surgery.
The Stadium – Balaídos
The atmospheric 29,000-seater stadium should feel familiar to United’s supporters, with stands close to the pitch and a ramshackle feel to much of the ground. Indeed, with the last major renovations having taken place for the 1982 world cup, Balaídos failed a UEFA inspection in 2002 and Celta would have been forced to play several Champions League matches at Porto’s Estádio do Dragão had the local council not paid for emergency repairs. In recent years an expansion programme was announced, which is due for completion in 2019.