Barcelona: With the smallest budget in Spain’s first division, Levante was expected to be battling to avoid relegation this season.
Instead, a novice coach and the league’s oldest back four have led the Spanish minnow to the top of the league standings for the first time in its 102-year history, leaving Real Madrid and Barcelona in their wake.
Levante’s first-year coach Juan Ignacio Martinez says he is as shocked as anyone at his team’s unexpected success.
“What this team is achieving is impossible. Being leader is something very special for a team like Levante,” said Martinez, who had never coached in the first division before joining Levante this summer.
“But this is just one more step. We can’t get over confident.”
While Levante’s budget of USD 21 million ($28 million) is dwarfed by the ?500 million ($666 million) enjoyed by Madrid, its 3-0 win over Villarreal on Sunday lifted it one-point ahead of Jose Mourinho’s team and two points clear of defending champion Barcelona.
“It is a miracle that a team like Levante is leader with the lowest budget in the first division,” forward Juanlu Gomez said. “With what one player of Barcelona or Real Madrid makes you could pay the salaries of 25 players of this squad.”
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho had already picked Levante to be the season’s revelation soon after his side fell 1-0 at Ciutat de Valencia stadium, and on Monday Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola called Levante’s team effort an “example.”
“If they have arrived this far, beating big teams, it is because they are doing things well and we have to congratulate them,” Guardiola said. “They have veteran players with a lot of miles on their legs and a lot of experience. And once again, they are showing that your past record doesn’t matter.”
Coach Martinez has established a clear style of play for Levante based on teamwork in defense and speed in attack, with six players chipping in with goals.
Sergio Ballesteros, the 36-year-old captain, anchors a defensive line of Juanfran Garcia (35), Javi Venta (35) and Nano Rivas (32).
Together with 33-year-old goalkeeper Gustavo Munua, they have allowed a league best three goals, while its well-orchestrated counterattacking style has rejuvenated journeymen Valdo Lopes and Juanlu, whose five goals lead the team.
“I have bought all of today’s newspapers,” Juanlu said on Monday. “In 102 years nothing like this had ever happened, so this will always be remembered.”
Levante has only ever played seven seasons in the first division, and was relegated four years ago as overwhelming debts forced it into bankruptcy protection. The Valencia-based team returned to the first division in 2010-2011 and spent most of the season in the middle of the table before finishing in 14th place.
While the sale of striker Felipe Caicedo this summer gave it some cash to bring in forwards Jose Barkero and Kone Arouna, the squad is formed largely of castoffs who arrived for free.
This commitment to seasoned players saw Levante set a record for fielding the oldest starting 11 in the history of the first division at an average of 31.6 years of age when it brushed aside Malaga 3-0 two games ago.
Levante’s sports director Manuel Salvador told The Associated Press earlier this month that the confidence his team is building now will help it deal with the difficulties lying ahead.
“We have to keep our feet on the ground. The start to the season is positive, but the tough moments will come and if we are not playing at 100 percent they will run right over us,” Salvador said. “But I don’t think the squad will lower its guard. We beat Madrid and the team continued with the same rhythm, that shows it understands.”