MADRID, April 21 (Reuters) - Celta Vigo will have to upset the odds when they face English heavyweights Manchester United in the Europa League semi-finals, but will be confident of emulating fellow Spaniards Sevilla who won the competition in the last three seasons.
Based in a city of around 300,000 people in the northeastern region of Galicia, the club lacks the footballing pedigree of United or the other semi-finalists, Olympique Lyonnais and Ajax Amsterdam.
Celta, who host United in the first leg on May 4, have never won a major trophy but their rapid progress in recent seasons under two talented coaches while dealing with the loss of their best players has been impressive.
Relegated to the second division in 2007 with financial problems threatening their survival, things were looking bleak for the Celestes (“Sky Blues”).
It took Celta five years to battle back from the brink but they returned to La Liga in 2012. Staying up by the skin of their teeth in their first campaign was an achievement that laid the foundations for a brighter future.
They then appointed current Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, who saw them out of trouble and stabilised them as a top-half club. Enrique moved on, as did star forward Iago Aspas, however Argentine coach Eduardo Berizzo kept up the good work.
Berizzo, an admirer of compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, implemented an intense pressing game with his players suffocating the life out of their opponents.
Harrying and hassling the opposition into submission, with a vocal crowd behind them in the 29,000-capacity Balaidos stadium, the club took another step forward when a sixth-placed finish last year saw them return to European competition.
Winger Nolito was sold to Manchester City, but in came Pione Sisto from Denmark. The Ugandan-born forward has a good record against United, scoring twice for former club Midtjylland against the Red Devils in this competition last season, and is one to watch with his pace and powerful shot.
Aspas also returned after an unsuccessful spell with Liverpool and has hit form again, notching 16 La Liga goals to date and earning himself a Spain call up.
Aspas and former Manchester City player John Guidetti have formed a potent attacking partnership and the Swede is keen to help his side reach the final in his home country on May 24.
“To play in any Europa League final would be motivation enough, even if it was on the moon, but of course for it to be played in Stockholm is a big thing for me,” Guidetti said.
“It’s where I was born, where I grew up – it’s in my heart.”
While their European exploits have taken the steam out of their league form this season – they currently sit 10th – they have still claimed some big scalps.
They beat Barcelona at home in the league, knocked Real Madrid out of the King’s Cup and won away at Shakhtar Donetsk earlier this season.
“We’re playing really well,” Guidetti warns.
“We have a great squad and we just work hard together; we’re like a big family. We can beat any team if we play the way we can.” (Editing by Keith Weir)