With no Primera División action this weekend, and Spain in friendly action at Wembley after having already qualified for EURO 2012, many in Spain (including this blog) have turned to La Segunda for their football fix. And as luck would have it this Sunday evening sees the biggest game of the Spanish second tier so far this season, with Galician rivals Deportivo la Coruña and Celta de Vigo clashing at the Riazor.
The first Galician derby in five seasons is a 35,000 sell-out, with a fleet of 26 buses especially laid on to bring 1,500 Celta fans the 150 kilometres between the cities in time for kick-off. Although Depor supporters are also eagerly looking forward to the game, there is a sense that it brings home how things have changed for both teams in recent years. A decade or so ago Galician football looked very different, with Depor and Celta two of Spain’s leading sides.
Around the turn of the century Depor were a genuine third force in Spanish football. After coming agonisingly close on a few occasions (especially in 1994 when Miroslav Djukic infamously missed the last minute penalty needed to take the title) the club finally secured the La Liga trophy in 2000. Superdepor also won the Copa del Rey in 1995, and again in 2002 with a famous final victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Madrid’s 100th birthday. Players like Juan Carlos Valerón, Roy Makaay, Donato, Fran, and Mauro Silva could, and maybe should, have done even better too. Javier Irureta’s Valerón inspired 2004 side beat Juventus in the Champions League last-16, famously came back from 4-1 down to beat Milan 5-4 on aggregate ) in the quarters, but then couldn’t score in either semi-final leg as they crashed out to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
Their neighbours down the coast in Vigo were no mugs around that time either. They regularly finished in the top half of the table, and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1999 and again in 2001, beating Benfica 8-1 and Juventus 4-1 on aggregate along the way. Respected statisticians IFFHS even named Celta the best club side in the world in February 2001, something Depor never managed. A string of excellent players went through Vigo in those years, including Brazilian Mazinho, French midfielders Peter Luccin and Claude Makélélé, Israeli Haim Revivo and especially Russian pair Alexander Mostovoi and Valery Karpin. A fourth placed La Liga finish in 2002 then brought Champions League football to the Estadio Balaídos for the first time.
Vigo struggled to cope with such heady success though. A few months after losing to Arsenal in the Champions League last 16 in February 2004 they were relegated to La Segunda, losing 5-0 at home to Depor along the way. They bounced back up the next season, but as details of off-field financial shenanigans emerged, club president Horacio Gómez resigned in 2006 and not even noted Bulgarian tactician and man-manager Hristo Stoichkov could save them from the drop in 2007. There was no quick return this time and Celta narrowly avoided another relegation to Segunda B and almost went out of business completely.
Depor’s decline was equally painful, but in a slower, more long drawn out kind of way. From 99-00 to 03-04 they never finished lower than third in La Liga, but then slipped to eighth, eighth, thirteenth, ninth, seventh, tenth and finally eighteenth. Last season saw a stereotypically ‘too good to go down’ side full of internationals regularly dominating games but rarely scoring goals. The final day was a disaster, with Depor at home to a Valencia side with nothing to play for, and knowing even in injury time that one goal would secure safety, missing chance after chance and sliding to a first relegation in 21 years.
So now it’s Celta who are on the up. They were unlucky to lose to Granada on penalties in last year’s play-off semis and a 1-0 home win over Cartagena last weekend sees Paco Herrera’s side third in the La Segunda table with 23 points from 12 games. With ex-Chelsea midfielder Enrique de Lucas and Greek international striker Dimitrios Papadopoulos are possibly the only two names easily recognised outside of Galicia, limited finances have forced them to look to a youth system which is now bearing fruit. Their squad now includes eleven home-grown players, including top scorer and local lad Iago Aspas.
The mood is less bright at Depor, who are reportedly €83m in debt. Last year’s manager Miguel Lotina left and was replaced by ex-Almería coach José Luis Oltra. This season’s side is more or less the same, with Spanish U-21 striker Adrian the only important loss. Goalscoring keeper Daniel Aranzubía, Argentine defender Diego Colotto, Mexican midfielder José Guardado and striker Riki all stayed, and Valerón continues to pull the strings in midfield at 36. They now sit seventh after a poor goalless draw at Murcia last weekend, a game which brought back memories of last season’s struggles in front of goal.
Following the build-up to the game in Spain, you get the feeling this is a bigger game for Celta than Depor. Phil Ball has written that “Celta consider themselves the more authentic Galician team and resent Depor’s recent successes” and Sunday’s game now gives them a chance to demonstrate they are best set to bring back some glory to Galician football. Local lad Aspas told Marca during the week that he was particularly looking forward to the game.
“I am ‘Celtista’ till death and my opinion is clear, Celta is historically the best team in Galicia,” said Aspas. “I consider myself a good ‘Celtista’ and because of that very ‘antideportivista’. I have spent a long time defending Celta’s badge, I am proud of it and we aim to bring the three points back to Vigo.”
Depor’s Aranzubia was a little more circumspect, but still got a dig in.
“In a derby there are no favourites and whatever happens there will still be a long way to go,” he said. “Iago Aspas is a young player, it is his first derby and I am convinced that he will be sorry for what he said. Whoever loses will have a difficult week.”
Should be a good game.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.