"Our aim remains to avoid relegation," said Juan Ignacio Martinez after his Levante side had given near neighbor and Champions League team Villarreal a comprehensive 3-0 beating. "The team is not experiencing success; success will come with staying up. It is true that, with 20 points, we have taken a brilliant step toward the objective."
In fact, when Martinez spoke these words, Levante was sitting atop the Liga table for the first time in its 102 years of existence. Its victory over Villarreal in El Madrigal was its sixth straight win, a run that began with the unlikely scalp of Real Madrid at Levante's modest Ciutat de Valencia stadium.
Levante's sizzling form seems incredible considering that Martinez's appointment was not a popular one among fans of the coastal club. His predecessor, Luis Garcia Plaza, had assumed something of a cult status at the club. Arriving in 2008 after Levante had been relegated, Plaza guided the side to eighth in the second division in his first season and third, and promotion, in his second. In its first year back in Primera, Levante was heavily favored to make a swift return to Segunda and that prognosis appeared sound at the season's halfway point, with the side languishing in 19th place with 12 defeats to its name. However, a stunning turnaround in fortune, based largely on the goals of on-loan striker Felipe Caicedo, led Levante to eventual safety, albeit on the final day of the season. It was going to be a hard act to follow, especially considering the talismanic Caicedo had been sold to Lokomotiv Moscow.
David Ramos/Getty ImagesSergio Ballesteros has anchored Levante's defense, which had conceded fewer goals (three) than any other La Liga side in the opening eight matches.
Martinez's pedigree was not particularly stellar, either -- a Segunda Division B, Group IV title win was the sum of his laurels -- but he represented what Levante was in the market for: a young, attack-minded coach who would be, above all, cheap to employ. Levante's financial troubles preceded the current economic crisis and reached such a low ebb in the 2007-08 season that a fundraising friendly match was played to cover salaries. Still now, Levante operates on the lowest budget in the top division, around 20 million euros, or roughly one-twenty-fifth of what Real and Barca have at their disposal. Trying to build a team with a sum that would barely cover the annual wages of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, Martinez's experience of lower-league haggling came in very handy.
Essentially, Martinez raided the second division for the likes of Jose Barkero and Francisco Farinos -- the former a member of the Spanish FIFA World Youth Championship-winning team of 1999 who had nonetheless never played in Primera -- and gathered the flotsam and jetsam of Primera castoffs such as Malaga's Xavi Torres, Osasuna's Carlos Aranda and on-loan powerhouse forward Arouna Kone from Sevilla. As this season's top scorer, Juanlu, put it: "I spent an entire season at Betis sitting in the stands eating sunflower seeds."
Against Villarreal, Levante's starting 11 was the oldest ever fielded in the history of the league. Only three of its players are under 30 years of age, and its back five has a combined mileage of 171. However, under the vociferous guidance of club captain Sergio Ballesteros, a man mountain with a hint of Michael Madsen about him, the team had conceded fewer goals (three) than any other side in La Liga this season across its opening eight matches. But defensive solidity is matched with attacking verve, Levante packing a considerable punch on the counterattack led by the wily Juanlu and the tireless Kone. After a slow start in the net-rippling stakes, Levante has bagged 10 in its past four games, outscoring overnight leader Barca by five in the same period. "Levante is the strongest team in La Liga at the moment," Real assistant coach Aitor Karanka told the press this week.
His peers point to Martinez's ability to make his players feel they can perform at exceptional levels, and the family atmosphere he creates in the locker room, as reasons for Levante's extraordinary start to the season. And the good times kept rolling on Wednesday, when Levante defeated Real Sociedad 3-2. Three points closer to safety, or three points closer to Europe?
Martinez insists on the former and his players are singing from the same hymn sheet. "We are only thinking about staying up," chorused Juanlu.
With confidence running high and games against Osasuna, a derby at Valencia, a trip to struggling Atletico and the visit of woeful Sporting coming up, Levante might well achieve that before playing Barca at Camp Nou on the first weekend of December.