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Eduardo Berizzo’s Celta Vigo side is staring down its larger rivals—and reaping the results

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“We have honored football,” said Eduardo Berizzo, following his team’s 4-1 drubbing of Barcelona in late September. The 45-year-old Argentine manager of Celta Vigo was speaking about more than just the startling scoreline his side achieved against one of the best teams in the world; he was praising the fact that Celta had not strayed from their principles of playing good football to obtain a result. As a former assistant to Marcelo Bielsa, you wouldn’t expect anything less.

Berizzo served under Bielsa during his time as manager of the Chilean national team, and the influence is clear: Berizzo’s Celta team plays 4-2-1-3, they press high up the pitch, they keep the ball on the ground, and they’ve developed this habit of refusing to back down against superior opponents. The latter is arguably the most important thing Berizzo has instilled in the team.

His predecessor, Luis Enrique, had preached the doctrine of Barcelona to Celta and encouraged them to stick to their identity no matter the competition. Berizzo has continued the Barcelona brand of football with his own additional quirks thrown in, but now Celta appear genuinely confident that they have the ability to go toe-to-toe with the big boys. It’s why they are still unbeaten this season, and are level on points with Real Madrid ahead of their top-of-the-table clash this weekend. If they walk away victorious, they’ll be genuine contenders for a spot in Europe next season.

Berizzo looks more like a retired light-middleweight than a retired footballer. He has a chin that goes on further than you expect it to, wide shoulders, thick wrists, and an expression that can jump from stern to lighthearted in an instant. It is often said that teams take on the demeanor of their manager, but to say that about Celta would be a stretch. Berizzo was your typically hard-nosed, South American center-back, no stranger to a well-placed elbow or an early shower. When he played for Celta Vigo, he was red carded four times in one season, and in the 1997 Copa América, he was sent off after two yellow cards in the one game he played for Argentina. Later, as an assistant under Bielsa, he was ejected from a World Cup qualifying game and banned for four matches.

His Celta team is the opposite of these outbursts. Celta are controlled—they are averaging 62% possession per game, second behind Barcelona—graceful, and disciplined, with a bit of fire simmering underneath. They are what their manager is striving to be—an extension of Berizzo’s maturation as a man and a manager.

Realists, which is to say pessimists, will argue that Celta’s success is not sustainable, that only big clubs can play good football and have continued success throughout the entire season, and that the best thing you can do with a mid-table club is play in two banks of four and learn that beautiful football is above your paygrade. But Berizzo and Celta refuse to come back down to earth. They continue to commit the foolish acts of romantics, passing the ball out of the back, pushing players forward in attack, keeping possession against better teams, and pressing teams high up the pitch in a synchronized display of movement. Against Madrid, they will continue to do the same, with a front line consisting of Nolito, a Barcelona reject, Iago Aspas, a Liverpool reject, and Fabian Orellana, a Granada reject. They’ve turned themselves into one of the best forward lines in Spain, which is like being one of the best tailors on Savile Row. Nolito called their front three a “turdy turd” when compared to Barcelona’s, but they’ve sure done a good job of polishing it.

Celta have no business being so high up the table. The fear is that it can get dizzying and disorienting up there for newcomers, that the fall could happen at any moment. But that’s also what makes it so exciting. Celta aren’t pretending to be something they’re not. They have a plan of how they want to play, and they fulfill that mission anew every weekend. They didn’t try to out-Barca Barca, and they’re not going to try to out-Madrid Madrid.

Celta know that you don’t invent a game you intend to lose, which is why they don’t drift away from their strengths and play towards other teams’. Against Madrid, they aren’t going to sit back, wait for a mistake, and hoof the ball forward. In fact, Celta is likely to be the more adventurous side of the two. That could be considered masochistic, given Madrid’s ability to counter-attack, but you would have thought the same against Barcelona.

After that game, Luis Enrique stated, “If I am going to lose, let it be to a team who plays like Celta.” If they continue to stay towards the top of the table, those sentiments may change.

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