Sometimes an image speaks a thousand words. As the Levante players made their way off the pitch at full-time, club captain José Luis Morales held his head in his hands and wept. The suffering, the tension and relief; it was all too much.
These were not tears of sorrow though, but tears of joy. Morales’ 97th-minute strike had secured a 2-0 win against Mallorca, a first league win of the season at the 20th attempt for LaLiga’s bottom club. Not only that, it brought an end to a soul-destroying 27-game winless streak, a top-flight record that had cost two coaches their jobs, 27 players their dignity and half a city its once-weekly escape from reality.
“It’s a day to be happy,” Morales told the TV cameras after the full-time whistle. “After the three kings came, this is the best present we could have had.” After a tortuous nine months, Levante finally had hope. Certainly, the Estadi Ciutat de València felt a happier and more optimistic place than it had three weeks before when cross-town rivals Valencia CF came to visit.
In the final game of 2021 and the last before Christmas, a fantastic opening 25-minute spell saw Los Granotas rush into a two-goal lead. Then, predictably, they capitulated. The 3-4 defeat in the Derbi del Turia would have hurt regardless of the circumstances, but in the grand scheme of things losing in a local derby was merely a footnote. Levante were officially the worst team in LaLiga history.
The loss to Valencia - number 26 in the 27-game winless run - embodied the fall of what has in recent years been one of LaLiga’s most exciting teams. A side capable of relentless, breathless attacking football, as seen in victories against Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid over the past few seasons, was reduced in 35 second-half minutes to a bumbling, disorientated group of stragglers. What on earth has gone wrong?
“At a sporting level, Levante died last March,” says Levante supporter Carlos Morte. Those might seem strong words at first, but when you consider the crushing psychological blow Levante suffered that month then you can understand the fatalistic outlook. Last season, Los Granotas reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey for the first time in over 80 years, courtesy of a dramatic last-gasp goal in the quarter-finals.
After a 1-1 draw against Athletic Club in the first leg in Bilbao, the Basque cup specialists crushed the dreams of the Valencian side with an extra-time winner in the return fixture. Having already practically secured their top-division status, Levante had poured their hearts and souls into the cup.
“That was a very hard blow to take on a mental and psychological level,” addsCarlos. “From that moment the team stopped competing, as if it had no sporting ambition. The fact that their rivals for survival were at such a low level favoured such a relaxation.”
Sure enough, Paco López’ side won just twice after the cup heartbreak, and won none of their final eight league fixtures. Still, perhaps such a tail-off in form was understandable given the circumstances. A whole summer to regroup and rebuild Levante after a tough season – largely played without supporters in the stands – couldn’t have come at a better time. Yet it did little to help.
“The club’s sporting management, mainly responsible for Levante’s last relegation in 2016, was unable to create a competitive squad in the summer and did not reinforce the weakest positions of the squad like the defence,” says Levante fan Javi Cuberos. “Some of the players are light years away from the level needed.”
That certainly showed in the opening weeks of the season, although bad luck also played its part. On matchday 1, Levante were on course for a 1-0 win away at Cádiz until the hosts scored a 97th-minute equaliser. The following week, having gone 3-2 up against Real Madrid thanks to a brilliant attacking performance, substitute Alejandro Cantero wasted the chance to put the game to bed when he hit the post having rounded Thibaut Courtois. Shortly afterwards Los Blancos equalised. Two weeks later Rayo Vallecano scored a 92nd-minute equaliser, and on matchday 8, Morales missed a late penalty that would have salvaged a point away to Mallorca.
“After all that, the team went into a mental block where they felt incapable of winning any game. Any mistake we made ended up costing us a goal,” explains Carlos. “The club should have swept the slate clean last summer with big sales,” reflects Valencia-based journalist Paco Polit, “a renewal of the squad and even possibly kicking out the sporting management in order to keep Paco López alongside a sporting director who actually believed in his playing style.”
That inaction was arguably a foreshadowing of what was to come. López was dismissed at the start of the October international break after three-and-a-half years at the club, a period of relative stability for a constantly yo-yoing club. The 15th-, 12th- and 14th-placed finishes he guided Levante to during his three full seasons at the helm might not sound impressive, but he is nevertheless one of the club’s most successful and well-liked managers.
Many supporters believed that a coach with a different style was needed, one that had the experience and know-how to get Levante out of a sticky situation. Getafe beat the Valencian club to the signing of Quique Sánchez Flores, and instead, Javier Pereira was appointed. His spell as assistant manager to Juan Ignacio Martínez between 2011 and 2013, and the qualification for the Europa League during that period, was used by the club to justify the left-field appointment.
In reality though, Pereira had precious little top-level coaching experience and things went from bad to worse. The former manager of Chinese Super League side Henan Jianye lasted just seven league games before his dismissal, losing four and drawing three.
“It didn't take long for him to lose the confidence of the players,” reveals Carlos. “He lacked experience in locker-room management and criticised several players publicly in press conferences. The only thing he contributed as a coach was to improve the fitness of the players, but the football level of the team was zero. We didn't play anything.”
Now Alessio Lisci is in charge, a young coach at the club since 2011 who has been thrown in at the deep end with his first senior management job. The 36-year-old may well have just turned a corner in his fight to save Levante’s season, but up until the Mallorca win it had been far from plain sailing.
Four games into his reign, Levante suffered a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey at the hands of third-tier Alcoyano, tormentors of Real Madrid the season before. A 3-3 draw, in which Levante had trailed 1-3 at the hour mark, was followed by a 3-1 loss in the ensuing penalty shootout.
A few weeks later after a crushing 0-5 defeat to Villarreal, the last of the 27 winless league matches, some Levante fans had had enough. A group of disgruntled supporters confronted the players as they boarded the team bus after the game, with players and staff including Lisci, Roger Martí, Pedro López, Coke and Sergio Postigo stopping to speak to more supporters when they arrived back at the club’s training ground late at night.
The next day the club’s president, Quico Catalán, announced at a press conference that he will hold a vote of confidence at the end of the season. “I am not willing to throw in the towel, but I understand it necessary that whatever happens at the end of the season, this president undergoes an examination,” he insisted.
Levante’s recent performance against Mallorca was a glimpse at the alternate reality of where this team should really be. Like their struggles earlier in the season, luck played its part, only this time it favoured Levante. After Roberto Soldado had put Los Granotas ahead, a piece of typically poor defending – in this case a needless foul committed by Róber Pier – gifted Mallorca a penalty which Aitor Fernández saved easily. With eight minutes remaining, Fer Niño thought he had brought the visitors level, but VAR scrubbed the goal out with a debatable handball call.
When you’re in a rut, sometimes you just need that little bit of luck to help yourself get out of it. Now that the football gods have looked favourably upon Levante, salvation isn’t actually that far away. Six points now separate them from safety, with winnable games against fellow relegation candidates Cádiz and Getafe and out-of-sorts Real Betis and Atlético Madrid coming up.
“In these last games we have seen a certain improvement in the team,” comments Javi. “Who knows what will happen - the first victory may remove a mental block and allow the team to play calmly and not feel so tense.”
Levante have been LaLiga’s entertainers for a while now, their exciting attack and leaky defence making them a guarantee of goals and drama. If they are to pull off the seemingly impossible and avoid a return to Segunda, they will need to learn to entertain without sacrificing results. Fast.
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