Levante's surprise start takes it top in Spain
Barcelona and Real Madrid again look set to battle for the Spanish league title, but after its fourth straight victory the undefeated Levante has surprisingly elbowed between the powerhouses at the top of the Spanish league standings.
Levante's 1-0 win Sunday thanks to a goal by Juanlu Gomez at then league leader Real Betis took it to joint top of the table- behind Barcelona only on goal difference- for the first time in its 102-year history.
Even so, the small club is trying to stay focused on its target of avoiding relegation come season end.
''This team stands out for its effort, commitment and humility,'' Juanlu said on Monday. ''If I were to say that we're going to be fighting for a spot in the Champions League, I'd be shooting my team in the foot.''
Levante had already stunned Madrid 1-0 at Ciutat de Valencia stadium last month for its first ever home win over the giants in a league match, and Madrid coach Jose Mourinho - whose team is a point behind in third - said late Sunday that Levante was the revelation of the season.
''The team that deserves all the attention is Levante,'' Mourinho said. ''For being the smallest club and not having as much prestige as the rest, it has earned all the credit.''
While Madrid boasts a budget of ?500 million ($666 million), with Barcelona not far behind on ?460 million ($613 million), Levante has so far produced the same results, or better, on the pitch with just ?21 million ($28 million)- the smallest budget in Spain's first division.
Levante's sports director Manuel Salvador told The Associated Press on Monday that the club's recent success was based upon bringing in players and staff that understood they would have to renounce greater glory by signing with the Spanish minnow.
''What Levante needs is hard work and hope,'' said Salvador, who took over as the club's sports director when it was relegated four seasons ago as overwhelming debts forced it into bankruptcy protection.
Salvador said that with a share of the club's revenues going to pay off its debts, he and his staff had to build a competitive squad with players who arrived for free.
''Four seasons ago, we had to make a squad of talented players who weren't playing very much with their teams,'' Salvador said. ''They had to want to play here - if they showed any doubt, they were discarded immediately.''
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.
This season, Levante was expected to suffer after losing leading scorer Felipe Caicedo and its coach of three years, Luis Garcia, in the summer. But Garcia's replacement, Juan Ignacio Martinez, has led the club to its best ever start in his first season coaching in Spain's topflight after 14 years in lower divisions.
After consolidating its place in the first division, this past offseason Levante stuck with a solid core of players led by defender Sergio Ballesteros, while adding striker Arouna Kone- on loan from Sevilla- and attacking midfielder Jose Barkero.
The plan has paid off as Levante's solid collective play has earned four wins and two draws, founded on its defense.
The 36-year-old Ballesteros anchors the league's oldest back four, which has only conceded three goals- the best in the league along with Sevilla.
''The fans see what Ballesteros gives us on the pitch, but they don't see his leadership in the locker room,'' Salvador said. ''We have the oldest defense in the league, but they are players that have been important and are still in good physical shape.''
Levante will have another test to see how far it go can this season when it hosts the in-form Malaga on Oct. 16. after the international break.
Coach Martinez, however, has no illusions that the goal for his team remains modest.
''We know what our role is in this league,'' Martinez said. ''The fans should enjoy the moment, but we professionals in the locker room congratulate ourselves for having taken another little step (toward remaining in the first division).
''Fourteen points are nice, but at the end of the day it will just be a good story to tell.''