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Celta Vigo Reaching New Heights

Photo courtesy of AP

Barcelona ran into buzzsaw on Wednesday in the form of La Liga’s in-form team, Celta Vigo. Although the 4-1 scoreline wasn’t what many expected, maybe it should’ve been.

After all, over the last several seasons, the Celticos haven’t really resembled the downtrodden bottom-feeders many unknowing parties view them as. In fact, they’ve been one of Spain’s most exciting sides to watch, as well as one of the worst to visit on an awayday. They are cruel, explosive and efficient. Like a buzzsaw.

Unlike many giant-killing occasions, Wednesday’s 4-1 scoreline wasn’t unfair in the slightest. Simply put, Celta outplayed the defending Liga champions at both ends of the pristine Balaidos pitch. Incredibly clinical on the night, Eduardo Berizzo’s side took five shots and scored on four of them.

This wasn’t a tactical mismatch in the home team’s favor either. In fact, Celta flourished through the very same tenets on which Barcelona have built their success over the last decade. Quick passing build-up and using relentless pressing as the first line of defense was the order of the day. Celta did eventually resort to frenetic counterattacking as the match wore on, but only because Barca began pressing higher and higher in desperate search of a goal. In every way, it was a pure masterclass from Berizzo’s men.

Celta have been nothing short of remarkable in this early Liga campaign, a fact punctuated over the weekend when they beat Sevilla 2-1 at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Coming into Wednesday’s encounter, they sat just outside of the top-four, trailing each of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. With the victory, they have leapfrogged every one of those clubs into second place.

The only reason they’re not topping the table right now is because Real Madrid hold a slight one-goal differential advantage on them. Both Celta and Madrid have scored 14 goals each this campaign, while neither has lost a game yet (Villarreal, too, has yet to lose).

When such an emphatic renaissance occurs at a club, there are points of obvious redirection that can be singled out. You could certainly argue that Celta’s came in 2010 when they appointed now Las Palmas manager Paco Herrera with the club toiling in the Segunda. But while that moment could surely be identified as a monstrous shift, the next wave of fortune that arrived in 2013 was equally impactful. This was when the very manager whose team they destroyed on Wednesday, Luis Enrique, was appointed as head coach.

Coming from a much higher-profile Roma post, the appointment of “Lucho” was seen as a flyer as much as a shrewd business decision. Celta knew of his pedigree as a player and were simply hoping the Balaidos could serve as a fitting place for his coaching acumen to develop similarly. Of course, there was also the benefit Enrique brought with him in being rather chummy with Barca, having played eight seasons for them during his playing days. This meant that Celta might be able to lure potential loanees from Catalunya to Galacia, a prospect that proved to be true.

Enrique soon discovered his true managerial prowess while at Celta, beginning the club’s upward trajectory. Their football grew an identity, and the results matched that growth. After finishing in 17th place the season before, Lucho lead the Celestes to a ninth place La Liga finish in 2013/14, their best in eight years. From that point on, Spain began to take note of those Sky Blue jerseys, as well as some of the names on the back.

One of Enrique’s first acquisitions at the club, Nolito, has become a breakout star of Spanish football over the last two seasons. He contributed 13 goals and 13 assists last campaign, in addition to creating a Liga-high 95 chances (yes, more than Lionel Messi). This season, the Spaniard has taken his game to even higher peaks.

He now leads the league in both goals and assists, with five and three, respectively. Nolito simply keeps getting better, a point not to be forgotten when it comes to the coaching he continues to receive.

It’s safe to say that, in Berizzo, Celta have found the perfect successor to Enrique. While Lucho employed an all-out-attack mentality, the Argentinean boss has coupled a similar philosophy with a more general defensive mindedness.

We saw it against Barca with the brilliant Augusto Fernandez controlling the gameplay and tempo of the match, and the red-hot Nolito repeatedly badgering the Catalans’ backline until they inevitably stumbled right into his orbit. These developments have resulted in Celta being a well-rounded machine that can defend as a unit yet still batter opponents at will. It’s a surefire stylistic choice that has and will continue to reap substantial benefits for Berizzo and Celta.

Last year’s eighth place finish may have merely been the first chip of the wood for Celta Vigo, because they just defeated — and perhaps more importantly, outplayed — the defending Europa League and Champions League champions in a single week. If you wanted to buy low on these buzzsaws, you might be too late.

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