Why were Aspas’ heroics vs. Barcelona not enough for Spain call-up?

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The strange story of Iago Aspas grows curiouser and curiouser. By the end of Saturday afternoon he’d contributed to Barcelona‘s downfall — again — scoring twice as Celta Vigo came back from three goals down to draw 3-3 in the 96th minute.

By the end of Sunday night, with Spain unable to call up vital strikers like Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Mikel Oyarzabal or Yeremi Pino for their all-or-nothing matches in UEFA World Cup qualifying against Greece and Sweden, Aspas’ mobile phone hadn’t rung. No call-up for the Galician genius. Again.

Okay, this hasn’t felt like quite such a magical season for the “Wizard of the Balaidos,” Celta Vigo‘s talisman and, at this stage, perhaps the most talented and thrilling player in their history. In fact his goals and assists (at this stage last season 7/4 compared to 5/1 this season) are there or thereabouts.

Aspas has endured a testing season, having been forced into a public apoolgy for, as he described, the “ugly detail” of poking his finger into Mario Hermoso‘s eye as the Atletico Madrid player was getting red-carded in Vigo. Add in several uncharacteristic bad misses in front of goal, plus Celta’s deeply irregular form. So his charismatic, attack-minded coach, Eduardo Coudet, appealed to loyal Celta fans to rock the Balaidos stadium on the 10-minute mark (his shirt number) against Barcelona because: “This would be a great moment to award him a huge ovation — I know it’ll help him perform.”

Coudet, still finding his feet in European coaching since arriving last year from Argentine football, where the cult of the idiosyncratic superhero player who loves his club more than life itself isn’t an alien concept, had done his homework. He knew that Aspas breathes fire, when he feels belittled. Aspas loves to be told: “You should have been an all-time-great at Real Madrid or Barca, but they’ve scorned you!” His ego loves to be told: “They think you’re nothing more than a big fish in a small pond — it’s insulting.” That fires him up, big time. The stats told Coudet a story.

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Aspas has a total of 59 goals against Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis. When Spain’s traditional big clubs try to hunt Celta down this local boy with global talent reacts. But against Barca it’s as if there’s a personal grudge. In his last 12 league matches against the Catalans, Aspas has nine goals and three assists. Only one active LaLiga player has more goals against the Blaugrana: the mighty Karim Benzema (10).

So, naturally, the Balaidos fans reacted — on the 10th minute a chorus of adoration swept around the Vigo stadium. Unfortunately, Barca were already 1-0 up by then and, driven to their best football of the last two or three years by teenagers like Ansu Fati (19), Nico Gonzalez (19) and Gavi (17), spent those first 45 minutes making the 33-year-old Aspas look irrelevant as they cruised to a three-goal lead which didn’t flatter them and could have been more inside 34 minutes.

However, every Superman story requires a cliff-hanger moment somewhere on the desperate-to-impossible range. In the second half, Celta’s attitude was a thousand times better and more aggressive. Barcelona’s injuries totted up, the crowd bayed for Blaugrana humiliation and Aspas simply took the match by the scruff of its neck.

The stat that Barca hadn’t thrown away a 3-0 lead for nearly a quarter of a century looked wobbly within seven minutes of the re-start when Aspas scored. It looked worse when Nolito made it 3-2 on 74 minutes. But long before Aspas produced the 96th-minute left-footed diagonal volley which beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen across the face of his goal and nestled just inside the post for 3-3, anyone who was watching — and every Barcelona player — knew it was not whether Aspas would produce a genius moment, but a matter of when.

Barnstorming, inspirational, sensational. However, if Luis Enrique — former Barcelona coach, former Celta Vigo coach, now Spain coach — was watching, the events clearly didn’t inspire him.

Aspas’ record for Spain is remarkable. At least in terms of it being impossible to understand. He has a mere 18 caps when a 33-year-old of his talent should have at least upwards of 80. No coach of La Roja has permitted him more than 68 minutes in any Spain game. And his total of 684 minutes across those 18 caps is miserly.

Yet, this being Aspas, his goals-per-minute ratio is exceptional. He has hit the net for Spain every 114 minutes — including big wins over quality opponents like Argentina, England, France, Italy and Croatia. If you include his assists, Aspas is responsible for Spain putting the ball in the net every 57 minutes when he’s involved. He’s special. But not sufficiently so for Luis Enrique.

Spain’s task over the next few days is to beat Greece in Athens (something they couldn’t manage in Granada last March) so that they haven’t already missed out on the single automatic World Cup qualifying spot by the time they host Sweden in Seville on Sunday.

The loss of Ferran, Oyarzabal, Yeremi and Moreno means a dearth of 27 goals scored for La Roja — never mind assists. Perhaps Aspas, who’s not played since winning in the Faroe Islands in June 2019, could have been the hero in waiting? He’s going to finish his career, undeservedly, without a senior trophy or medal to his name. But these few days, as well as continually keeping Celta in the top division, could have been the piece de resistance of his latter career.

Taking the call, accepting Luis Enrique’s apologies (for the second time), leading the line or coming off the bench and ensuring that Spain don’t miss out on World Cup qualification for the first time since 1974 would have been right out of the Aspas storybook.

Spain’s brilliant, but usually unforgiving, coach really did apologise to Aspas once before. It was the beginning of his reign, in 2018 at the start of the UEFA Nations League. Aspas didn’t make the squad, until Diego Costa dropped out. Not only was the Galician called up as a replacement, he started at Wembley and Spain won.

Afterwards Luis Enrique admitted: “Before you work with someone you form an idea of them. Then you work in training, you see your mistake and you try to solve things. I’m always open to players surprising me because the benefit of the team must always be more important than a coach’s personal opinion.” Words which can be interpreted in a couple of ways, but at any rate, Aspas was dropped for the next match.

Luis Enrique and Jordi Alba ended up very far from chums in the last months when the former was coaching Barcelona. And, initially, Alba wasn’t picked for Spain when the manager took over. But as soon as form dictated it was impossible not to recall the left-back the two shook hands and united forces.

So, is Spain’s door permanently closed for Aspas? It’s not to his benefit when Luis Enrique’s former assistant and temporary stand-in Robert Moreno — who was removed for “disloyalty” — criticised his ex-boss for not choosing Aspas for Euro 2020. That did the Celta record-scorer zero favours. I’d guess that Aspas is on the naughty list for one of two reasons: either he disobeyed tactical instruction or he was caught dissing his national team coach in word or deed. That’s a cold place to be with Luis Enrique.

So, in Spain terms he’s right up against it. Just like he usually is for Celta. But perhaps don’t rule out the idea that, somehow, he defies probability and turns things back round his way. Right now it’s Luis Enrique’s immoveable object against Aspas irresistible force and, frankly, you’d back the immoveable object. But Barca will tell you — never write the striker off.

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