From Kop flop to Copa del Rey hero: The return of Iago Aspas
In the 2014/15 Copa del Rey scoring charts, one man towers above the rest. Two hat-tricks in four games. Seven goals and two assists overall. He has been unstoppable in the tournament to date, scoring more than Lionel Messi, Mario Mandžukic and Neymar. He is the king of the King’s Cup. He is... Iago Aspas.
The Galician has already struck seven times as many goals as he managed in an entire season with Liverpool last year, not to mention more than three times as many as Mario Balotelli has for the Reds so far.
Valuable goals, too. Sevilla are only two ties away from the final, and to get there they must navigate a favourable quarter-final with Espanyol, then an imminently winnable semi-final against either Málaga or Athletic Bilbao. There is every chance the Andalucians will go head-to-head with either Barcelona or Atlético Madrid for the trophy on May 30. At the moment, Aspas is the man driving them towards that goal.
It’s a bizarre turn of events given his spectacular failure at Liverpool. The goals may ‘only’ have arrived in the cup, but both the quality and regularity make them noteworthy. One of his hat-tricks against Sabadell came in fewer than four minutes; two minutes and 11 seconds if only taking into account time when the ball was in play. Some claim it's the second-quickest hat-trick ever scored. Either way, it was ruthless.
The striker has shown off an impressive bag of tricks, the likes of which those at Anfield never witnessed. A dipping shot from just inside the area; the rounding of a goalkeeper with a great first touch; a volley; a cheeky shuffle in front of goal to leave a defender skidding on the turf; even a perfectly-placed penalty struck with ice-cold composure. It's hardly reminiscent of a player who has just endured a nightmare year.
The level of rivals has varied, true, but the best opposition brought the finest goal of them all. His looping header against Granada on January 14 was a technical marvel, giving keeper Roberto Fernández no chance.
The form isn’t down to luck, but the fruit of hard work. Aspas has been pulling double shifts in Sevilla’s training complex, desperate to avoid a repeat of his year in England. This week he even finished the fastest player in training, albeit at a team-building day out at the go-karts.
“I came here to play and not to sit on the bench. I hope the tide will change a bit in 2015,” he told El Pais earlier this month. The same newspaper called him a ‘special striker’, but playing is no easy feat given he’s competing with two particularly gifted centre-forwards.
Carlos Bacca’s 11 La Liga goals make him the clear first choice, while Kevin Gameiro isn’t far behind with eight in all competitions after returning from injury in late October. Both are established fan favourites at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and both have long since earned the trust of Unai Emery. Yet in the cup, Emery has a pleasant headache: Aspas has to keep playing, because Aspas keeps scoring.
Man of the fans
The Copa may be a welcome escape after last year, but the striker wants to play in La Liga too, and in that regard things have been trickier.
A grand total of 10 minutes are the sum of his league appearances since November 22 – reminiscent of the Liverpool days – though the good performances in other competitions have helped create a lobby around his cause.
There have been newspaper articles asking for him to start, one Sevilla-based columnist writing that Aspas had “won the right to be in the first XI in the league” and reminding readers that before his move to Liverpool there was talk of a Spain call-up.
Back in November supporters singled him out: “Europa League games and the last 15 minutes here and there aren’t enough, he should play more,” one Sevillista insisted.
Carlos Perez, senior writer at Sevilla’s big sports paper Estadio Deportivo, says comments sent into him by fans these days suggest Aspas plays far less than he deserves.
For the moment, however, his manager refuses to budge. In many ways it’s entirely understandable. Sevilla are fourth in La Liga, having enjoyed the best start to a season in their history, and Bacca is consistently decisive.
Dropping him in La Liga simply isn’t an option – even for a manager who loves to rotate – but the Colombian can be given valuable midweek rest so long as Aspas continues to score. Why mess with a winning formula?
Emery has shown a delicate touch in maintaining the balance. He has made a habit of speaking highly of Aspas in public, even managing to turn the player’s outburst when he didn’t feature against boyhood club Celta into a positive example of his hunger.
In truth, the coaching staff have been surprised by his unexpectedly high work ethic, which has well overshadowed a sometimes-difficult personality.
There is a long-term strategy at work here too – it's another classic example of Monchi taking a player on a downward trajectory, then turning him the other way to Sevilla’s benefit.
In all likelihood Bacca will be sold at some point in the near future, and when that happens, competing for the sole striker’s position will become significantly easier.
Sevilla are obliged to buy Aspas at the end of this season. Even without playing in La Liga, if he can keep his form up and help them make a significant statement in the Copa, it presents a good case for the club to give him a shot as one of their starters in the campaigns ahead.
His fate is in his own hands – not a bad situation for a player who couldn’t even make it off the bench against AFC Bournemouth this time last year.