Eduardo Berizzo has revealed how he will draw inspiration from his mentor Marcelo Bielsa’s Europa League victory over Manchester United with Athletic Bilbao as the Celta Vigo coach plots a huge upset against Jose Mourinho’s side.
United face Celta in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final at the Balaidos stadium on Thursday night, when Mourinho’s fears about having to field a makeshift defence could be eased by the availability of centre halves Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling after injury.
Bielsa’s Bilbao beat United home and away in the last 16 of the Europa League in 2012 en route to losing to Atletico Madrid in the final and Berizzo, who was the Argentine’s assistant for Chile and played under him for Newell’s Old Boys, claimed there were “clues” he would take from that tie as he targets the greatest triumph in Celta’s history.
Like Bilbao, Celta favour a high pressing game and Berizzo believes the best way his team can overcome United is by staying true to their principles. Those principles helped deliver a memorable 4-3 win at home to Barcelona in La Liga in October and also saw them defeat Real Madrid over two legs of their Copa del Rey quarter-final.
“I was a witness of Marcelo Bielsa’s match with Athletic Bilbao in Manchester, he found a tactical solution and that may be a clue for us to follow tomorrow,” Berizzo said.
“Manchester United know what to do, how to manage the times, the pace, the defence, the attack. We want to get a result that gives us a chance of winning and the only way of doing that is being faithful to who we are.
“We hope first of all the statistics stay as they are - just two wins [for Manchester United in Spain] away from England. How do you beat Manchester United? By being faithful to who we are, I think this team has an identity and they believe in this identity - a lot of pressure, possession, recovering the ball quickly to attack again. The only way to beat Manchester United is to be faithful to who we are.
“More than feared Manchester United are to be respected. We have played against great teams and Manchester United is definitely one of them - historically very clearly - but we will win with conviction, identity and with heart, or at least we hope to.
“I think the match is going to change from within, I don’t think it’ll be a linear match - lots of come and go, different phases, pressures. Manchester United change according to the rival they play against so we definitely have to be ready for that.”
One player who has been central to Celta’s emergence under has been Iago Aspas, who endured a miserable two year spell at Liverpool but who has been reinvigorated by Berizzo. The forward, now 29, has 21 goals in 38 games for Celta this season, including one in the 2-1 Copa del Rey victory at the Bernabeu in January and another in the win over Barcelona.
“More than myself Iago has experienced a personal maturity, that has been more than the influence of a coach like me,” Berizzo said. “He has really assumed leadership of the team. Playing on right hand side of the pitch really liberates him in his creative freedom. He’s able to combine better with the centre-forwards.”
The word being plastered around Vigo to mark one of the biggest games in their history is “afouteza”. It means having the willingness of spirit in the face of adversity and showing strength of character.
“If we’re talking about a cup final I think it’s just as important as tomorrow’s match but this game has international significance,” Berizzo said. “Yes, this is the match all the fans want to see. The joy and the dream is very obvious for the city. Vigo has always lived and dreamt of getting something like this.”
Although the return of Bailly, Smalling and Jones, along with Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, will be most welcome for Mourinho, the United manager will still be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
Berizzo says his offensive plan will not change, regardless of who plays. “As far as we’re concerned our attacking plan has not changed, it doesn’t vary on the rival, it stays the same,” he said.
One player backing Celta to claim an upset is Nolito, who was signed by Manchester City from Celta for £13.8 million last summer. Nolito has become a virtual outcast at City and admitted the situation has become hard amid talk of the player leaving this summer but he is routing for his former club.
“I am very happy for Celta’s fans,” Nolito said. “There are many ways for them (to beat United). United have a great team, but Celta do too. They have to concentrate and take the chances they get, they have to fight too, but United don’t have Ibrahimovic.
“Celta can make it to the final. They are also able to win at Old Trafford next week.
“Celta like possession, to keep the ball, but United like to play on the counter attack, this is where they can hurt you. It would be incredible if they won the Europa League and get to the Champions League. It would be a great achievement for the club.”
Asked about his own future, Nolito said: “I am not as happy as I would like. I have not played much since December. We know that in football this kind of thing can happen. The only thing I can do is keep working hard and keep fighting.
“We will see what happens. I have two years left on my contract. The only thing I want to do is play and if I can’t do it here, I will try to do it (elsewhere, presumably) and be happy. Now I just want to end the season, go to Cadiz, disconnect, the truth is not playing is making it a bit hard for me. In Vigo I was very happy. Very. Celta gave me three of the best years of my career. Furthermore, my two daughters were born in Galicia, and I have good friends there. It will always be my home.”