On Sunday evening Villarreal host Celta Vigo at El Madrigal as they go in search of their 8th consecutive home win in La Liga which will equal a record for the Yellow Submarine. Currently sitting sixth, 8 points off 4th-placed Valencia in the race for the Champions League qualification places, Villarreal are in devastating form having lost 2 of their last 15 games and are firm favourites to beat Celta as manager Marcelino welcomes back a number of first-team options.
After a patched-up team earned a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last week, Marcelino will once again his most creative player, winger Denis Cheryshev, available after the Madrid loanee was prevented from playing against his parent club. Front two Uche and Luciano Vietto were left on the bench in Madrid while so too centre-back pairing Mateo Mussachio and Victor Ruiz in a ploy designed to keep players fresh for the Copa Del Rey semi-final which was lost to Barcelona in mid-week.
With that out of the way, Marcelino is able to place more of a focus on running Valencia and Atletico for the last two Champions League spots so he is likely to return to the full-strength, barring his injured captain Bruno Soraino, side that has often proved irresistible this season. However among all the gifted players appearing in yellow on Sunday evening, Celta will also have a precious talent in their ranks in the form of Nolito Agudo-Duran.
Celta are on an impressive run of form of their own having gone five unbeaten and Nolito has been central to the upturn which has Eduardo Berizzo’s men looking upwards once again. The winner over Cordoba, the penalty which set up the 2-0 win over Atletico and the late equaliser to earn a point away at Real Sociedad were all vital in a run that has seen Celta acquire 11 points from 15 to move up from 12th to 9th.
For Nolito, who as a 28 year old won his very first call-up and cap for Spain against Germany in a friendly last November, the timing of a resurgence in form has been perfect as he aims to stay in Vincent Del Bosque’s plans for La Roja’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Ukraine next month.
A run of 5 goals in his first 8 games, which positioned Celta 6th in La Liga at the end of October, a barren sequence of 12 games without a goal would follow as Celta went 10 games without victory between November and late January. For both club and player it has been a welcome return to goal-scoring form.
What makes Nolito’s rise to prominence is that the 28 year old winger hasn’t done it the easy way. After learning the game on a concrete court near his flat in Cadiz as a young boy, Nolito started with Andalusian side Ecija Balompie in the Spanish third-tier, he was then noticed by Barcelona who took him to Catalonia as a 22 year old.
Even though he continued to thrive in the third division for the B side, scoring 16 goals over two seasons as the B team won promotion to the 2nd level after an 11 year absence, he would make just 2 senior appearances under Josep Guardiola and an offer of a professional contract at the Nou Camp would be rejected.
Nolito has admitted that his move to Barcelona was made too early but the impression Luis Enrique, who coached him with the B side at Barca remained huge. “Luis Enrique has marked me for good and for bad. He is a person who has always been direct and clear with me, has always told me the good and bad things” he says, “It marked my career because it was a stage in my life was going up or going down. Luis Enrique was key.”
The winger then moved to Benfica where he would complete just one season of the five year deal he initially signed, even though it was successful as he netted 15 goals in 48 games as the Portuguese giants won the domestic cup. In his second season he managed just 6 games for the reds and he was shipped back to Spain on loan with Granada as chances of long-term future at the Stadium of Light wavered.
Flashes of his brilliance were only sporadic as Nolito seemed to stagnate once more, but his move to Celta in July 2013 proved pivotal as he was re-united with Enrique. 14 goals followed in his debut season and even though his coach has since departed for Barcelona, the winger has continued to thrive under Berizzo.
The audacious back-heel to tee-up Joaquin Larrivey for the game’s only goal as Celta stole a 0-1 win in the Nou Camp back in November would have been particularly sweet; he was finally finding the platform to produce his brilliance on a regular basis while the coach who seemed to be the only one who could coax that consistency from him was sitting on the opposite bench.
Nolito has made all 24 of his appearances for Berizzo on the left of a three-pronged attack and he has produced a total of 8 goals and 6 assists, as well as creating a total of 61 chances for his team-mates in a productive campaign so far. His 8 yellow cards shows an edgy side to his game that he will have to smooth out but for a player whose confidence has often appeared brittle in the past, Nolito has also produced in the big games, assisting against Barcelona and scoring two penalties in the 2 meetings with Atletico, the second a reward for a sensational performance in which he was man of the match.
Nolito has been here before however, having been the stand-out performer in Enrique’s Barcelona B side that contained the likes of Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Christian Tello and Thiago but not quite making the cut in Catalonia, he is fully aware how quickly a player can fall from grace.
He will line up against another bright young talent in Villarreal’s Vietto, who is interesting the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, on Sunday evening, aiming to keep the striker at bay in the competition for the Spain squad at the end of March.
With Villarreal’s array of stars on show, don’t be surprised if it is Nolito, Celta’s plucky late-blossoming underdog, who has a huge say in the proceedings.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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