Friday, September 26, 2014

Celta’s Cat of Catoira

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(Reblogged from The Guardian)


Celta’s Cat of Catoira denies RCD A Coruña 

to become the king of Galicia
Sergio Álvarez Conde, in only his 30th league game in 15 years at the club, kept out a late RCD A Coruña penalty to earn Celta the bragging rights in a derby that has been a rarity in recent years

Joaquín Larrivey scored the winning goal for Celta Vigo against RCD 
A Coruña in the Galician derby. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA



“I held on as long as I could.” Sergio Álvarez Conde was talking about the moment, but this was more than a moment. He’d held on, all right: longer, much longer, than it looked. It was the 88th minute of the Galician derby, Celta de Vigo versus RCD A Coruña, and it was coming up to midnight on Tuesday night. Sergio stood on the goalline at Balaídos, staring at the ball on the penalty spot, mentally going over his study notes. Behind it stood Haris Medunjanin. Celta led 2-1. They had been two minutes from a huge victory, one they needed, but now it seemed they were about to be denied. Sergio waited. He didn’t go early, he didn’t move. He held on. And then, suddenly, he flew left and pushed the penalty past the post.

Balaídos erupted and the chants began. “Sergio! Sergio!” Celta’s players embraced and the man they call the Cat of Catoira clenched his fists and screamed. At last. This was a new experience for all of them. This was the first Galician derby in 18 months and the last time they had played, Mario Bermejo memorably declared that Celta had gone to bed with children and woken up covered in piss. Celta had not beaten RCD A Coruña in seven years and not one of their players on Tuesday had ever beaten them.

Relegation for both sides had brought the derby to the Second Division but mostly kept them apart and when they did meet Celta could not win. For 14 of the starters across the two teams on Tuesday night, this was the first time they had even played in a derby. Sergio was one of them. Which would not be particularly significant, except that Sergio has been at Celta for 15 years. Here he was, the unanimous hero of the biggest game of the year and yet this was only his 30th league game for the club and most of those have been as cover for injured team-mates. He is 28.

There were occasional cup games, sure, but when it came to the league, opportunities have always been limited until now. Sergio made his debut on the last day of the season in 2010-11. The season after, injury allowed him 19 games in the Second Division but still they did not make him first choice. He played twice the year after that and just three times last season. When, after Tuesday’s game, victory as secure as his new-found status, he said, “I’ve been here a long time”, it was no exaggeration. When he called it a “dream I’ve had since I was a kid”, that was no exaggeration either.

Born in Catoira, 60 kilometres north of Vigo, a Celta fan and gallegospeaker, Sergio joined the club at the age of 13 and played at every level. Well, almost every level. At 5ft 10in, originally told that he was too small – to which he responded “I’ll have to jump higher, then” – he was captain of Celta B but the first team mostly resisted. Pinto, Quintana, Esteban, Notario, Falcón, Varas, Yoel … all of them played ahead of him; he watched new goalkeepers come and go while he waited. He was told to look for another club but didn’t want to: he’d enjoy playing in the second team instead. At least it was his team.

Now Sergio has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the First Division. On Saturday, he rescued his team against Atlético Madrid, helping clinch a 2-2 draw, despite Atlético’s onslaught; on Tuesday night, he played only his tenth First Division game for Celta, 15 years later, one of five Galicians who started Galicia’s derby, and he rescued them again. “Sergio Reigns in the Derby” ran the headline in AS. “Sergio is the king of Galicia,” said El Faro. “Sergio starts a party at Balaídos” said El País.

It wasn’t a great night for a party, in truth. Some took to calling it theclásico but playing on a Tuesday night, Week 5 wedged in between Week 4 and Week 6 with no buffer, 10 days of games in a row, denied it the buildup that sets a derby apart, while a 10 o’clock kick-off prevented lots of fans from going and even denied it a match report in some of the morning papers. And even the Galician versions of the country’s sports dailies led instead on Cristiano Ronaldo. The RCD A Coruña fans who travelled the 160km numbered in the high hundreds, and around 6,000 seats sat empty. Given the circumstances, both were considered good figures.

Yet it was still a party, still a Galician derby: intense and noisy, and with a dramatic ending, the 24,000 there shouting and singing their heads off, players stuck on fast-forward, nerves frayed and hearts racing, both managers admitting that at times it all happened too quickly for their own good. For everyone else, it had been pretty good fun. “A great derby, yes sir,” declared AS. “Long Live the Derby!” cheered Marca. On the RCD A Coruña bench was Víctor Fernández, the man who has taken charge of more First Division games for Celta that anyone else. “It was an extraordinarily intense and exciting derby,” he said. “But derbies are games you have to win. Sergio was their hero.”

“I’m delighted to see the fans celebrating. Now we can say that we own Galicia,” said Celta’s manager, Eduardo Berizzo, who played under Fernández at Balaídos. “It wasn’t easy. And the last-minute penalty gave it a special drama, made for clásicos.” Asked if it was even harder to watch a derby than play in it, he replied, puffing out his cheeks: “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”

This was a victory Celta needed. Celta have been the better team in Galicia for a while now, but a derby victory was necessary to reinforce that sensation. Last season they stood alone in the First Division and although RCD A Coruña went straight back up for the second time in three seasons, the days of Super Depor are long gone and so has all the money. They’re not even Pretty Good RCD A Coruña now. Celta are still in administration but will soon be out the other side, their debt cleared; RCD A Coruña have only recently embarked on a recovery plan of their own under a new president, Augusto César Lendoiro having departed a quarter of a century and many, many meals later, and the outcome remains uncertain.

They had arrived heading in different directions. Celta were two points off the Champions League places; RCD A Coruña were two points off the relegation zone. Celta had just drawn against the league champions, Atlético, and came into the match unbeaten; RCD A Coruña had just been battered 8-2 by Real Madrid.

It was only three minutes before RCD A Coruña were behind again. Nolito scored a lovely goal, cutting in from the left to score, running off kissing the badge. RCD A Coruña could not escape; Celta were all over them, not letting them settle. There was something familiar about it. The new coach Berizzo, already a manager in waiting when he was a player at the club, worked with Marcelo Bielsa and his hand can be seen in much of the work they do. The pressure that Celta applied last season with Luis Enrique has, if anything, increased. They’re quick and aggressive, keen to take possession high and go for the throat.

This was the fifth time they had taken the lead this season in five games. Keeping it is a different matter, though. “We were a bit tired by the end,” Berizzo admitted. It is a familiar experience; they led against Córdoba, Atlético and Real Sociedad but drew all three matches. Something similar happened here, or threatened to.

“The second half was ours,” Fernández insisted. That was an exaggeration – his team had only three shots on target all game and none between scoring in the 55th minute and getting the penalty in the 88th – but Celta were indeed pushed back. When the touchline reporter put it to Sergio that Celta had been clearly superior afterwards, he admitted: “I don’t know about that. I thought it was pretty even.”

RCD A Coruña got the equaliser, scored by Isaac Cuenca. And although Celta took the lead again 20 minutes later when Joaquín Larrivey, outstanding all game, thumped in a header and, although he had another chance to make it 3-1, RCD A Coruña came at them. With every passing minute, Sidnei became less a centre-back and more a playmaker, driving RCD A Coruña on from deep, piling forward like a one-man stampede until a penalty was won for a handball by Rafael Cabral. The clock said 88 minutes and Medunjanin picked up the ball to take the penalty. In front of him, Sergio stood waiting.
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