BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Overwhelmed with emotion after leading his boyhood club to a desperately needed victory, Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas couldn’t hold back the tears.
Aspas wept for joy — and relief— after scoring two second-half goals to help overturn a 2-0 deficit and beat relegation rival Villarreal 3-2 on Saturday in his first full match in more than three months.
“We don’t deserve the fans we have,” said Aspas, who received a standing ovation from supporters at Balaidos Stadium as he left the field late in the game.
Once on the bench with a coat over his shoulders, he let flow and had to be comforted by his teammates.
It was a signature display of communion between the player and the club’s fans.
Lionel Messi is hands down the best player in Spain— and beyond — and his 31 league goals have Barcelona on course to defend its domestic crown.
But Messi also has a star-studded supporting cast that can get wins without him — such as the 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid earlier this season when the Argentine playmaker was unavailable due to injury.
Celta, on the other hand, was a shell of team without its leader.
With Aspas scoring 10 goals through the first 17 rounds this season, Celta had lost just six times.
Then he injured a muscle in his right leg in a 2-0 loss at Barcelona in late December. Without him, Celta lost nine of 11 league games and plummeted in the standings. Aspas tried to come back in February when he played as a substitute against Getafe, but he re-injured his leg while warming up before the following game against Levante.
Back in the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 22, Aspas watched as his team conceded twice in the first 15 minutes to Villarreal.
But Aspas sparked the rally five minutes after halftime when he bent a left-foot free kick over the wall.
After Maxi Gomez used a header to pull Celta level in the 71st, Aspas set the winner up after he played Brais Mendez clear in the box where he was fouled by Victor Ruiz. Aspas culminated the fightback with four minutes remaining when he rolled his penalty kick just inside the post while goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo went the other way.
“It is clear that (Aspas) is an important player, he is our best player,” Celta coach Fran Escriba said.
The praise was well deserved.
Except for a disappointing season at Liverpool in 2013-14 and a subsequent campaign on loan at Sevilla, the 31-year-old Aspas has played his entire career for Celta on Spain’s northwest coast.
He has been the top Spanish scorer in the league for the past two seasons. His 22 league goals last season earned him a spot on Spain’s World Cup squad.
If Celta avoids relegation this season, its supporters can point to Aspas’ performance against one of its direct rivals. A loss would have left Celta seven points behind Villarreal, which is the last team clinging to safety. Instead, the win left Celta one point behind Villarreal with nine rounds left.
With the title race apparently over, the real drama is now at the bottom of the standings. Celta visits last-placed Huesca midweek, while Villarreal has to face Barcelona.
“This is the turning point that we needed,” Aspas said, “now we have our fate in our hands.”
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