On the face of things, Manchester United have nothing to fear in Celta Vigo, their Europa League semifinal opponents.
The Galicians possess no real star players, don’t spend big in the transfer market, have never won a major piece of silverware in 93 years, and are currently in 11th place in La Liga, the definition of mid-table.
But Celta Vigo, nicknamed Celticos, are Spain’s best small club.
Of the three teams Manchester United could have faced in the competition’s final four, manager Jose Mourinho was most likely satisfied with the drawing of Celta Vigo out of the hat. Ajax and Lyon, who will contest the other semifinal, are both clubs with continental pedigree, while the Spaniards’ last European sojourn was a decade ago.
Yet, the Premier League giants would be foolish to underestimate Celta Vigo when they face off on Thursday in the opening leg at Estadio Municipal de Balaidos. They have forged a reputation for themselves for being a side for the big occasion in recent campaigns, raising their game in accordance with the situation. Just ask Barcelona, who have lost three times to Celta Vigo in the last three years. Or Real Madrid, who were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by the Galicians this season.
The Balaidos isn’t particularly conducive to a red-hot atmosphere, with there being a fair distance between the goals and the stands, but nonetheless Celta Vigo have made it one of the most challenging places to visit in the Spanish game. Manchester United won’t find it easy there, given that they have only won once away from home in this season’s Europa League competition.
Eduardo Berizzo is considered one of the finest young managers in Spain right now, with Celta Vigo finishing in the top eight in each of his two seasons in charge so far despite a budget befitting of a club that is fighting the drop. So highly thought of is Berizzo that he was tipped to take charge of the Argentinean national team last summer. Some have even mentioned his name in relation to the soon to be vacant manager’s role at Barcelona.
“They have played every [Europa League] game like it’s a final with the game plan,” Berizzo gushed about his players after the quarter-final win over Genk, highlighting the mentality with which his team has approached each Europa League match.
“Every game we have become stronger and have discovered what we are capable of. We believe that we can beat anyone. We are all connected. We will be an uncomfortable and dangerous opponent for anyone.”
That mentality is Celta Vigo’s best quality, because on paper they are a decidedly unremarkable club. On that basis, there is little for the Red Devils to fear, but players such Daniel Wass, Hugo Mallo and Theo Bongonda embody the methods and ideas of Berizzo as a coach, with Iago Aspas becoming arguably the best Spanish striker in La Liga this season (yes, Liverpool fans, THAT Iago Aspas).
Of course, Manchester United will be strong favourites to skip past Celta Vigo and into the Europa League final. For all that the Spanish outfit are better than their league position suggests, they don’t have match winners such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and the rest. If Mourinho’s side play to the best of their ability they will win over the two legs.
But any complacency will leave them in a sticky situation. Celta Vigo’s high press could trouble United, with Aspas and his cohorts surely relishing another big occasion on which to prove themselves. Having already pulled off shocks against Barcelona and Real Madrid this season, Celta Vigo won’t baulk at attempting to get one over Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.