For the first time in their 102 year history Levante are top of La Liga, so where did it all go right for the Spanish minnows?
Let’s forget United’s humiliation at the hands of Abu Dhabi County. Last Sunday produced a bigger European football bombshell, one that showed that football can still spring a surprise to warm the heart. This was the day that little Levante, La Liga’s poorest relations, climbed above Real Madrid and Barcelona to go top of the table for the very first time in their history.
Levante Unión Deportiva, to give the minnows their full name, pulled off this extraordinary feat by cruising to a 3-0 victory at Champions League hopefuls, Villarreal. Incredibly, the win was a club record sixth in succession, including last month’s 1-0 humbling of Real Madrid. Even more stunning is that Levante boast an unbeaten record in their eight games this season and proudly stand one point ahead of Jose Mourinho‘s side, two above reigning champions Barcelona and five clear of their envied crosstown rivals, Valencia.
It was in 1909 that this David of Spanish football was founded in the eastern coastal city. Since then, Levante have had little experience of slaying Goliaths, having only spent six seasons in the top flight, with 10th place in the 1963-64 season marking their best finishing position. Sharing blue and maroon shirts with Barcelona but little else, Levante’s only silverware arrived in 1937 during the Civil War when they won the Copa de España Libre, a trophy which remains unrecognised by the Spanish Football Federation.
Levante boast an unbeaten record in their eight games this season and proudly stand one point ahead of Jose Mourinho’s side, two above reigning champions Barcelona and five clear of their envied crosstown rivals, Valencia.
Currently in their second season since their most recent return to the top flight, Levante bear no resemblance to the aforementioned Manchester City or Chelsea, Anzhi Makhachkala, Malaga or any other petrodollar-fuelled football success story. They struggle on the league’s lowest budget, 22 million euros for this season, a sum which is 20 times less than Barcelona’s, and only spent some 400,000 euros on new players in the summer.
Delighted fans, 500 of whom gathered in the small hours of Monday morning to welcome their triumphant team back from Villarreal, owe a large debt of gratitude to their miserly defence. Levante field the division’s most elderly back four _ full backs Javi Venta and Juanfran Garcia are both 35, while centre backs, Sergio Ballesteros and Nano Rivas, are aged 36 and 32, respectively. Another of the team’s veteran defenders is 30-year-old former Chelsea left back, Asier del Horno. But it is hard-man Ballesteros, one of Spain’s most red-carded players currently in action, who is the team’s standard-bearer. So much so that, only half in jest, the club’s fans chant “¡Ballesteros. Selección!” to demand that national manager Vicente del Bosque calls him up to the acclaimed team of World Cup winners.
These toiling stalwarts have helped the team’s Uruguayan goalkeeper, Gustavo Munua, to remain unbeaten in the past 360 minutes of play. In fact, Levante have only conceded three goals all season, the best record in the league.
Together with this bunch of old-timers, Levante’s current squad contains a rag-bag of out-of-contract drifters, including former Liverpool reserve Nabil El Zhar, and a handful of loan players. One of the latter group is Ivory Coast forward Arouna Koné – the scorer of the goal which beat Madrid, one of 14 Levante have scored this season, making them the division’s third highest scorers.
With 20 points, the surprise package are already halfway to the fabled tally which is viewed as enough to avoid relegation. Predictably, president Quico Catalán has warned of harder times to come while Juan Ignacio Martínez, who is in his debut season as a manager in the top flight, also damned his team with faint praise.
“What this team is achieving is impossible. We hope to stay up,” Martinez said with somewhat undue pessimism.
Levante’s success is in stark contrast to their hopelessness a couple of years ago under former owner Pedro Villarroel, when mismanagement was the watchword. Players went on strike after failing to receive their wages, with some failing to return after the Christmas holidays, and eventually took the club to court, forcing the club into administration. Relegation was inevitable.
With 20 points, the surprise package are already halfway to the fabled tally which is viewed as enough to avoid relegation.
Now Levante have, for the time being at least, answered those critics who complain about the Spanish league being dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Yet in a country where the two powerhouses receive a ludicrous amount of media coverage at the expense of the rest, Levante’s memorable achievement has been largely underplayed. The day after it took top spot, Madrid-supporting rag AS typically preferred to focus its attention on Madrid winger Angel di María’s current position as the player with the most assists in the league this season.
“Let’s see if people stop talking about how good Madrid’s counterattacks are and start talking about what we have at Levante,” midfielder Juanlu Gómez complained after Sunday’s win.
Levante’s major claim to fame prior to this season was that Dutch legend Johan Cruyff played 10 games for the club at the tail-end of his career. The unsung players comprising the current side are laying a larger claim to something much more memorable.
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