“Straightaway, as soon as I saw them in the dressing room, I knew they weren’t going to make it in the Premier League. It boiled down to physique. They had the bodies of little boys – they looked about 15. I thought, ‘Jesus, how are you going to cope against John Terry, Ashley Williams and Ryan Shawcross?'”
Steven Gerrard made it easy for Liverpool fans to dismiss Iago Aspas, revealing in his 2015 autobiography that he did exactly that himself of the Spaniard and his compatriot Luis Alberto upon seeing them at training for the first time.
Aspas’ solitary season at Liverpool passed by unspectacularly: 15 appearances across the whole campaign, a single goal in an FA Cup tie with Oldham, a poor corner in a game already scuppered by Gerrard.
But rather than his physical attributes, there are likely to be a multitude of reasons why Aspas struggled to immediately settle in England. After all, Gianfranco Zola, a man with the physique of a withered mushroom, became one of Chelsea’s greatest ever players.
At that point of his career, Aspas had only ever played one season of top-flight football. The few phrases he learned in English included “yes”, “f*ck off” and “sh*t”. The players ahead of him in the pecking order – Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho – were all playing out of their skin.
But perhaps the main reason was one which Gerrard should be able to understand with hindsight. In much the same way that for over a decade Steven Gerrard was Liverpool FC, as Sid Lowe recently wrote for The Guardian, Iago Aspas is Celta de Vigo.
No season has highlighted this more than 2018-19.
Prior to playing Barcelona on December 22, Celta were ninth in La Liga with 24 points. Aspas suffered a troublesome calf injury in that match and by the time he returned they had dropped to 18th, having accrued only four more points, and now four points from safety.
You’ve probably seen the clip by now, of Aspas physically and emotionally exhausted after making his comeback in the relegation six-pointer against Villarreal. The 31-year-old was not fully fit but found himself starting such was the severity of the situation Celta faced.
It seemed the gamble had backfired as Villarreal found themselves two goals ahead at Balaídos. But then the hosts were awarded a free-kick right on the edge of the D, and up stepped Aspas.
It’s telling how no other Celta player even bothered looking like they might take the free-kick; this is Aspas’ club, and as such, the club look to him when the chips are down.
Twenty minutes later, Maxi Gomez equalised. Celta’s star striker, linked with big-money moves to the Premier League in January, had failed to score from open play without the inspiration of Aspas by his side. Suddenly, the momentum of Celta’s entire season had swung.
With four minutes remaining, Celta were handed a penalty, and again there was no question of who was going to take it. Aspas sprinted through his run-up then sent goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo the wrong way as he gently rolled the ball into the bottom corner.
Substituted a minute later, the emotion overwhelmed Aspas and he sobbed on the touchline, his tears continuing as he walked across the pitch after the final whistle. When asked why he was crying, he replied: “For everything.”
| RESULT |
Celta Vigo come from two goals down to defeat Villarreal 3-2!
— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) March 30, 2019
There is, however, a danger in becoming so emotionally entrenched in one game. After the drama of Villarreal, Celta still faced nine games to play before securing their La Liga safety.
A 2-0 lead at bottom club Huesca was squandered into a 3-3 draw, despite Aspas scoring once and providing the other two assists, meaning Celta remained in the relegation zone.
With Atletico Madrid and Barcelona still to play, fixtures against mid-table sides with little to play for such as Real Sociedad have taken on utmost importance, which is why it was a disaster when Celta trailed 1-0 at half-time on Sunday.
Yet again, Celta were forced to turn to Aspas. Yet again, Aspas saved Celta. Six minutes after half-time, he equalised from the penalty spot before bravely heading home at the back post as his side won 3-1 to climb out of the relegation zone.
“I came home to be happy, to have playing time, to be with my people,” Aspas said upon returning to Celta in 2015. “I feel loved here.”
It’s a situation which Steven Gerrard can probably relate to.