After so-so spells and Liverpool and Sevilla, Iago Aspas knows there is no place like home at Celta Vigo in a season that could end with a World Cup party-crash
Maybe the reason is his odd physical appearance: long arms, slender figure, hands hidden under his sleeves, always with that running pose that resembles a streetwise kid more than a professional athlete. Maybe it’s the fact that his magic is being performed in rainy Vigo and not at other better-known venues such as the Bernabeu, Camp Nou, Wanda Metropolitano or Mestalla. But, oh my, Iago Aspas is so, so good. Incredibly good. I might say, World Cup level good.
A number of players come to mind when we talk about underrated strikers this season in La Liga: Rodrigo and Santi Mina at Valencia, Stuani and Portu in Girona, Sergio León with Real Betis. However, none of them have been able to match Aspas’ uncanny stats for this year: 19 goals scored to date, equaling his all-time best scoring season in LaLiga. And he is bound to improve his record in the upcoming seven games.
The Moaña-born striker is one of those rare players who embody the anti-football star cliché. He is well-known for his gratitude towards his family and friends, and he has always expressed his desire to stay “home” even when he has gotten offers from many big sides.
Already 30, he did enjoy a short stint abroad but things didn’t go according to plan: after debuting in the 2009-2010 season with Celta’s first team in the Segunda División, his extraordinary performance and scoring ability granted him the chance to play for Liverpool in the summer 2013. However, it proved to be too drastic a change: the language barrier was hard and also his ‘morriña’ (nostalgia for his home) tortured him mentally, making him incapable of delivering on the pitch after the high expectations the Reds had in his skills. He needed to come back to Spain immediately.
In summer 2014, only one year after leaving, Aspas was back in our country playing for Sevilla FC. Things began to ‘click’ once again, playing 16 games, scoring two goals and winning the Europa League with the Sánchez Pizjuán side. However, the ‘prodigal son’ required a last trip north, straight to his home in Vigo, in order to regain his full confidence and impact on the team.
After his return to the squad in 2015, Celta has enjoyed the best version of Aspas ever. In his first two seasons, he scored 14 and 19 goals. Only back in the day, when Celta was playing in the second division, had he managed to improve those numbers (he scored 23 times in the 2011-2012 season). He became not only a regular starter but the team’s leader and captain, always pestering opposite defenders and complaining to the refs. And, most importantly, his whole expression had changed: Aspas was enjoying playing football to the fullest once again. At home.
It was a matter of time before someone else outside Vigo notices just how impressive this guy is. When Diego Costa got injured in the last months of 2016, incoming coach Julen Lopetegui didn’t hesitate to call up Aspas for the first time. The manager struck gold: Iago had his first cap for Spain on November 15th 2016 at Wembley Stadium in a friendly against England, and managed to score in the second half (2-2).
After proving that he had matured and could be reliable outside his familiar environment in Vigo, his presence has only increased in the national team. Take, for example, last month’s bloodbath versus Argentina (6-1). The striker came in off the bench, scored once and assisted three times to totally destroy the Argentinians in the second half. That day he also grabbed the all-time record for the quickest Spanish player to score four goals with the national team (only took him 289 minutes).
Again, many football fans may be puzzled over how is it possible for such a low-profile player to turn into a full-on headache for any opposite team, as his character and personality off the pitch are as quiet as they come. As we said before, Aspas is the streetwise brat turned professional football player: his skill, his flair, his smart movements on and off the ball…
He plays for fun, not for glory. He hates losing anytime, anywhere. And he’s so, so good, that he’s been easily integrated into Spain’s system without a hitch, adding a humongous amount of talent and versatility (he can play anywhere up front) to the Spanish squad. He might be underrated… but soon the World Cup fan base will learn his name.