Many remember Iago Aspas as a Liverpool flop, but the Celta Vigo star has emerged as one of Spain's most consistent goal-scorers and is eager to return from injury to help his beloved side steer clear of relegation.
When we think of elite goal scorers in La Liga and the race for the golden boot, the conversation regularly gravitates toward the usual suspects. There’s Lionel Messi, of course, the winner of the last two Pichichi awards, leading this season's race with 21 goals. His teammate and 2015-2016 top scorer, Luis Suarez, trails by six. Suarez’s countryman and Girona’s Cristhian Stuani (12 goals) follows, while three French players (Wissam Ben Yedder, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema) trail him with 10.
Another player with 10 goals is also the only Spaniard on that list of double-digit scorers: Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas.
What makes Aspas’s number perhaps more impressive than the others is that he’s been out of action since Dec. 22 when he suffered a right leg injury against Barcelona, so the 31-year-old striker knows too well this number could be much higher, had he stayed healthy. Always wanting to do more has become part of the fabric that makes up his character.
“It’s just been extremely frustrating not being able to play,” Aspas told SI.com this week. “I honestly can’t wait to join the squad. It's always tough having to sit there and wait to get better, but now I feel good and want to do anything I can to help this team.”
Ultimately, it will be up to under-fire manager Miguel Cardoso how and when to include him, but his return is extremely good news for Celta, as the club, which sits in 16th place and just a point clear of the relegation zone, has endured a miserable season. Aspas has, once again, been among its only shining lights.
“Getting that win against Sevilla was huge, it was a big push," Aspas said of last weekend's 1-0 victory, which snapped a five-match losing streak. "So now we’re trying to keep going and get better. That’s what we’re trying, to keep improving. We just have to keep going.”
It seems that has always been Aspas’s mantra, to just “keep going,” as his career has always been about his hunger on the field.
Last season, as Celta ended in 13th place, Aspas recorded 22 goals–trailing only Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Suarez–after scoring 19 the previous campaign and 14 the one prior to that. No player for the club had hit the 20-goal milestone in 60 years. This season, Aspas looks to become La Liga’s top scoring Spaniard for a third consecutive year. With his goal tally growing every season, it seems well within his reach, provided he's healty.
“I love this game, I love it," Aspas said. "I breathe it 24/7, so the moment I feel I can’t keep going, I’m sure my body will let me know, but for now, honestly, I feel very young.”
Scoring has always been a striker’s fuel as goals breed confidence, but Aspas, who calls Celta Vigo his home, believes the fans play a huge role as well.
“I’m always very confident when I play in front of my people who love to watch me and support me,” says Aspas, speaking of the Celta faithful who have witnessed his development since working his way up through the youth academy. “For me, being loved is so important when you’re not feeling good. The confidence comes from the fans and atmosphere. That’s what Celta Vigo does.”
This love, consequently, was never truly achieved with Liverpool, the club he signed from Celta in the summer of 2013.
Aspas joined Brendan Rodgers’s talented squad, which featured a deep offensive setup including Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, an in-prime Daniel Sturridge and Suarez, but his time there was anything but a fairytale. Aspas struggled to claim a starting role and failed to make an impact and was quickly written off as a bust.
“My time with Liverpool was a very good experience, but it was different than anything I had ever been used to,” says Aspas. “We have to remember that I was used to playing all the time, and always featured, but then I came to a big team where my role changed, and that affected me. But I always kept working hard. In the end it just didn’t work out.”
Aspas, who was born and raised in Moaña, Galicia, in the northwest of Spain, also had to acclimate to a new league and a new country, but the striker refuses to use that as an excuse.
“Culturally it was hard, but we had many players from other countries who were also getting used to the environment, so it’s not like I could use that as reason why it didn’t work out,” Aspas said.
By the end of the 2013-2014 campaign, Liverpool finished in second place and eventually loaned Aspas to Sevilla for a full season, which included an obligatory deal to sign him permanently the following year. After that season with Sevilla, the club bought Aspas in the summer of 2015 and immediately sold him back to Celta Vigo.
After a journey that took him from Spain to the Premier League had come full circle, Aspas returned to his beloved club and more importantly, returned to his goal-scoring form.
By the end of the 2015-2016 season, Celta Vigo finished in sixth place and Aspas ended as the team’s top scorer with 14 goals, but he failed to make Vicente del Bosque’s Spain squad for Euro 2016 in France. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his national debut, however, as shortly after being knocked out in the round of 16 against Italy, Spain turned a new page by appointing Julen Lopetegui the same summer. In November, Aspas was finally called up to replace the injured Diego Costa.
On his debut, at Wembley Stadium against England, Aspas came on a sub and moments later he scored a beautiful left-footed strike, helping Spain to salvage a 2-2 draw.
“Out of all the goals I've scored, my favorite is my first, against England,” he said back in 2017.
Two years later, however, and his list of favorite goals is slightly longer. It includes his delightful, last-gasp back-heel against Morocco at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which salvaged a draw for Spain and secured the top spot in its group with the result. The goal, which came in stoppage time, was initially ruled out by the main official but thanks to VAR, it was correctly overruled and the goal stood.
“It was an incredible moment, confusing at first, but incredible,” says Aspas. “At first, I had no idea what was happening, and with VAR involved, things were confusing but once the goal was confirmed, it was such a great moment for me.”
The next step in Russia was full of disappointment though, as Spain was knocked out by the host nation on penalty kicks (Aspas missed his try in the shootout) in the round of 16. Even at 31, Aspas is optimistic about the future with the national team under Luis Enrique.
“I’m very happy with how things are going. Many players have changed, many have left and some have stayed, but I believe fully in Luis Enrique’s project,” says Aspas, who is confident of his role with the team, despite the deep pool of attacking talent. “I worked with his assistant Juan Carlos Unzue (Unzue was in charge of Celta in 2017-2018), so that has helped with the transition and understanding his plans for the team.”
But the national team, for now, has to wait. Aspas’s immediate priority is returning to action with Celta and his desire to help the club move up the table. Finally, Aspas is available for this weekend’s match against Getafe.
“It’s been a long time since my recovery, so I’m just dying to get back on the pitch,” he said.
For all the accomplishments throughout his career and all his goals, Aspas often speaks like he has something to prove, as if he’s an unaccomplished 21-year-old, ready to show the world he is an elite scorer.
Little does he know he’s already there.