This is the final stretch now. Real Madrid need four points from their remaining two games, with ideally three of them coming on Wednesday at Balaidos against a well-rested Celta side. All eyes will be on this match, given that it’s the game-in-hand which doesn’t conflict with any other games on the schedule.
Celta have underperformed in La Liga, but it’s mostly due to the spotlight they gleamed on external competitions. Yet, still, detached as they were domestically, they pillaged Barcelona at home earlier this season, and when the full squad shows up to the game, they’re a thorn to any top side. On Wednesday, they won’t mind derailing Real Madrid’s title hopes.
To help us set the stage, we reached out to the great Alexandra Jonson (@AlexandraJonson), who covers Spanish Football as a freelance journalist, and has followed John Guidetti closely at Celta Vigo this season.
Kiyan: Alexandra, before we get into the nitty gritty, let's talk about how fun it must have been for you to be in Vigo for the first leg against Manu. There are certain moments where Balaidos is lit, and this was one of them (another being the Copa game against Real earlier this season). So, um, how was it?
Alexandra: It surely was a fantastic experience and one I will remember for a long time — not just the day of the match but the build up as well. It was a special atmosphere all around the city and impossible to miss that something big was about to happen. I arrived in Vigo already on Monday evening in order to attend the media day that was set for that Tuesday, which gave me three whole days in the city before the match.
Everywhere you went in the city you were to be reminded of the big match ahead. Statues had been decorated in huge Celta shirts and scarfs, taxis and busses drove around with light blue decor, there was a big countdown board counting down the days, hours and seconds until the match and all around the city the message “THIS IS AFOUTEZA” (roughly translated this is bravery / courage) could be read on big billboards, along the streets… everywhere. I've been to Vigo several times before and it’s a city that is very proud of it’s football team but it was on a complete other level this time, and wherever you went you’d heat people talk about it — from small kids to grandparents.
Then on the match day it reached another level. The United fans started to pour in and the Celta shirts started coming out. The match wasn’t until 21:05, but already in the morning people were walking around in the celeste colours. I even spotted a barber working in his Celta shirt. And to be honest I’ve never seen that many Celta shirts in the city centre (which is quite far away from the stadium) before. I later went to the stadium area around 2h 30 min before kickoff and it was already full, completely full of people. The atmosphere was one of the greatest I’ve experienced and in Spain I can only compare it to when 50,000 Athletic Club supporters travelled to, and conquered, Barcelona for the Copa del Rey final in 2015. Sadly the match didn’t live up to the same quality as the fans, but it’s definitely a football experience I rank among my best.
Kiyan: Just an outside observation from an ignorant person who watched the game on a laptop: The atmosphere surrounding the game seemed to be better than the one in the stadium itself. Is that accurate?
Alexandra: No I don’t think it is. The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible. I think the problem is that Balaídos is a very open stadium in it’s architecture, and that makes it difficult for the real atmosphere to get through on TV. I found it to be a very different experience when it comes to the atmosphere while watching Celta matches on TV as to in the Stadium, which obviously is the case at most stadiums but maybe even more so when it come to Balaídos. It’s a stadium that doesn’t really do the supporters justice, and that’s one of the biggest surprises for me since I started traveling to Vigo. I hadn't heard much of the Celta supporters before, they were simply none that stood out like the ones of for instance Athletic, Sevilla or Betis. But having travelled all over Spain and visited up to 20 stadiums, the Celta supporters are some of those who impressed me the most. Though you have to be there to really be able to enjoy them, and for the United match they were exemplarily.
I think in general the fans and the club did a tremendous job to create the atmosphere. The “This is Afouteza” message that was spread by the club was really taken on by the supporters. In the stadium music was played a lot louder than it normally is (you could barley hear yourself thinking) and it really pumped the fans up, and as soon the music went down the entire stadium was singing — there just wasn’t a quiet moment. The atmosphere before the match was fantastic but during it as well.
I’ve been to great matches at Balaídos before — the Galician derby, the Real Madrid match of last season and the Copa semifinal vs Sevilla to name a few, but this time the atmosphere was on a complete other level.
Then later at Old Trafford they were in a stadium where the sound is being picked up way better by TV and even if it, obviously, was less Celta fans than at Balaídos, you could hear them throughout the match, it was impressive away support they had there. There was even one guy from Vigo who currently lives in New York who flew all the way from the US to Manchester for the match and then all the way home the next day.
Kiyan: How badly did your heart sink after Guidetti's now-famous miss at the end of the second leg?
Alexandra: Can’t get much closer than that right? Well we can’t say they didn’t make it exciting. Though to be honest I think John has got a bit too much shit for that miss, especially here in Sweden. Looking at it it’s not as clear of a chance as people like to make it out to be. The pass from Beauvue isn’t the best and ends up coming a bit behind John, making it difficult for him to get it on goal. Actually Beauvue is the guy who gets the best chance and rather than passing to John he should have taken the shot himself and had he done so I believe Celta would be in the final right now.
However I don’t think anyone should be blamed for the missed opportunity, what this Celta team has done is rather extraordinary and not just this season but the last eight and especially the last three seasons. They were one game away from the third division and going out of business eight years ago and now they are one goal away from a Europa League final, that needs to be applauded. They are all very disappointed now and I know Guidetti is extremely frustrated over how it ended. But they all should, and will be, proud of this later on.
Kiyan: What Madridistas want to know most now is how all of this will effect Celta heading into the match on Wednesday. There is nothing to play for for Berizzo's men, other than spoiling a potential league title. Will they be up full throttle for this, or will we see another dud like the one against Alaves? I already know the answer to this (Celta will show up with their full XI), but I'm curious to hear you talk through the team's mindset.
Alexandra: Looking at the line-up vs Alavés, it’s safe to say that Celta will put out their best XI against Madrid. Even though their league position won’t change I still think there are plenty other things to play for from a Celta perspective. There are several players who have a lot of eyes on them now after an impressive European adventure and they are very well aware that this match will be their last real chance this season to make a mark. Other than that they obviously want to end the season on a high note, and after going out of Europa League I think both the players and the fans would see a win over Real Madrid as something that at least partly would heel some of the wounds.
I think the desire and motivation to defeat Real Madrid is there, not specifically to help Barcelona but rather to end the season in a good way — after a Europa League semifinal loss that hurt a lot! With all that said I’m not sure they will be able to give it their all in the way they would like. The air went out of this team at Old Trafford and I don’t think they have recovered from that yet and to be honest I think it will take some time to do that. It hurt a lot, being so close. They gave Europa League everything they had and then some, so they are very physically, and maybe even more psychologically exhausted right now. They will try to give a performance as they did in the cup vs Real Madrid but the big question is if they will be able to — if they have the energy, and I highly doubt that.
Kiyan: In hindsight, how smart was it to put all the eggs in the Copa and Europa League basket without much focus on the league?
Alexandra: I think it was the right decision. Celta’s resources aren’t big enough for them to be able to compete in all three competitions at once, and just the fact that they managed to reach the semifinal in both the Copa and Europa League is highly impressive. At the start of the season they did try to keep up in all three competitions, and Berizzo did a lot of rotations in order to do that. But it very quickly appeared that they don’t have the squad for it, and they just barley managed to get out of the group stage of the Europa League, all while not living up to expectations in the league.
Knowing that they were safe in the league, I think it was the right decision to go all out in Europa League instead — it was the only way for them to be able to do something big. One has to keep in mind here that even though Celta have been playing football at a very high level vs Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético and so on, it’s still a club that doesn’t have the same resources. And even if they’ve worked extremely well with what they have, signed good players for bargain prices, made a profit on selling players like Nolito, Orellana and Augusto etc, and on the pitch have an XI that can score four times on Barça or knock Real Madrid out of the cup, they still don’t have what it really takes to be able to compete in three competitors at once. They just simply don’t have a squad or the money for that. Their first XI can compete with the best but their second XI would probably fight in the bottom of the league table. They have proved in the last three seasons that you can compete with the best despite not having the big money, but that’s for a few matches or one competition. In three competitions that just isn’t a possibility, so I definitely think they took the right decision focusing on Europe.
Kiyan: What's next for Celta? How does Berizzo build on this team for next season?
Alexandra: Celta is in an extremely good position at the moment. Financially the club has never been better, they have gotten rid of all their debt (that almost saw the club disappear eight years ago), they have gained more money due to playing in Europe and reaching a semifinal, they’ve sold several players for good prices and overall it’s a club that is economically healthy — which is quite unusual for Celta and that’s creating somewhat of a problem because even though they do have money now they seem almost afraid of spending it.
The club president Mouriño first took over the club when it already was in huge debt and he is the main reason to why they are debt-free today, which has made him very well liked. But some are also starting to get a bit frustrated at him because now even though the club has money they are holding them tight. Berizzo wants to stay at the club but he wants his project and he has players he wants to sign. It’s here the problem comes because the club still doesn’t want to spend money, while in order to do what Berizzo wants and to be honest what Celta need in order to take the next step, they need to spend money.
So first off everyone is awaiting Berizzo to renew his contract with the club and if he does so it will likely mean that they have agreed to what he wants. If that’s the case then the future look very bright. They have made a very good foundation the last few seasons and if Berizzo is allowed to build on that then we can expect even better things, but a few signings are needed for that. So first and foremost, get Berizzo what he wants and have him renew his contract, then Celta can build. If that does not happen than the Celta supporters have something to worry about because if the club isn’t ready to spend money, and I’m not talking about a lot of money, but in order to grow then they’ll eventually get stuck and end up in a negative circle. They’ve been very smart in the last few years money wise but there comes a time when even that goes overboard and if they don’t use this golden opportunity they have with Berizzo and this foundation, then they are likely heading in the wrong direction. Then there is the whole stadium debate but that’s a question for another time I think.
Kiyan: What’s your prediction?
Alexandra: Predictions are always difficult (even though I got them correct the last time you asked me), I really hope Celta can give Madrid a match but it will be difficult. Let’s say 1-3 to Real Madrid (though I heard a rumour Guidetti is planning on scoring a hattrick, which would imply him scoring as many goals in one match as he has during the entire league campaign, but would that be the case, I’ll say 4-3 ;)).
Pre-game news & notes
Three players (Ronaldo, Isco, Vazquez) are a yellow card away from missing the final clash against Malaga. Unsurprisingly, this won’t dissuade Zidane from playing all three against Celta if he has to:
"Whatever happens, if they have to play, they play. The cards as always, they'll do everything they can not to get a yellow.
"I don't know how long those players have had four yellows, so we'll keep going. This is football, you know?
"We're just keeping going until the last minute of the last game. We're not going to relax at all, I promise you that. Whatever happens, happens. We haven't won anything.
"We've just got two games left and that's it. I'm thinking positively about the game tomorrow.
"I'm not thinking about anything else, very positive, focusing 100 per cent on what's ahead of us. I'm just being positive."
When asked about James’ future by silly reporters, Zidane was diplomatic as usual:
"James is here, that's not up for question. He's with us," Zidane said.
"He didn't train [on Tuesday] because he has a knock, but James is here and we're thinking just about the three games we have left this year."
On Morata’s ‘avoided handshake’, which everyone blew out of proportion:
"Morata wasn't angry with me, he was angry at something else," Zidane added. "I don't know what but it can happen, it's fine. We spoke and that's it."
On Bale’s status heading into Cardiff:
"Listen, right now is not the time to talk about that," Zidane said.
"I can tell you how he is, he's a lot better, he's out on the pitch, not with the group, but that's positive.
"We're happy with that, but we just have to think about the game [with Celta] and that's it. Gareth isn't with us.
Benzema spoke out to L’Equipe about the lingering scandal with Valbuena:
"There's really something wrong with him! …It's all part of his story," Benzema told L'Equipe. "When I hear him say that he's ready to play with me again. To hear him at the beginning, I'm a scum, I threatened him, I scared him, all you can invent … And now he wants to play with me!
"He said he would not have lodged a complaint if he knew I was involved in the story. For more than a year and a half I'm his worst enemy, a bad guy, a thug, I have to be punished, dragged in the mud, my name and that of my family, in the dirt."
Benzema continued: "It has been almost two years since I was forbidden to see my best friend [Karim Zenati], if not we go to prison, and he is quiet, but he must stop his crap, and I do not know why he keeps talking about me already.
"I am his enemy, I wanted to take money from him, he really has to stop inventing, it makes me mad to keep on lying! Sex tape, he just had to tell the truth about what really happened, and he would not have had all of this."
Vinicius Junior has signed a new contract with Flamengo, which doesn’t mean he still won’t come to Real Madrid in a couple years, but it does mean his release clause will be increased from €30m to €45m.