Is Levante’s Pretty-Ugly Fairy Tale Finally Over?

Never ever give up
Inspirational jackets can’t save Levante now

As I watch Levante crash to a 4-0 defeat at home to Real Sociedad, a performance described by the Revista podcast as the worst by any team in La Liga so far this season, a kid sits in front of my wearing a coat bearing the slogan “Never EVER give up.” He left before the end.

To be fair, an awful lot of the faithful did, and those that didn’t only hung around to show their side the contents of their pockets as they left the pitch.

Whte hankies at the final whistle
White hankies at the final whistle

The progressive reaction to the four goals followed the classic stages of football depression:

Goal 1: Shock.

Goal 2: Anger.

Goal 3: Early departure.

Goal 4: Ironic applause of the opponents.

And soon afterwards coach Lucas Alcaraz had paid with his job. You could never criticise him for a lack of effort as his touchline gurning and gesticulating makes Jurgen Klopp look like Niles Crane. A cruel critic might have asked whether there was anything behind his exhortations for hard work. If his preparation for this match had amounted to something more than hanging that kid’s jacket on the changing room wall and chanting “Never EVER give up.” at his team until their ears bled it didn’t show against La Real.

So does this mark the end of Levante’s gritty fairy tale? Sid Lowe wrote evocatively of the side’s glorious flirtation with the top of the table four years ago, dubbing their collection of gnarled journeymen “The Expendables” as they battled their way to the top of the table. They held on well enough to finish sixth and enjoy an unlikely European adventure the following season. And now it looks like they have come full circle.

In the week after Lowe’s article Levante actually took outright top spot in the league, ironically beating Real Sociedad 3-2. Just one day off the anniversary, La Real delivered the coup which cost Alcaraz his job and leaves the Granotes looking green around the gills. (I know frogs don’t have gills, but it’s so close to a good metaphor I had to follow it through).

By the end of the weekend, there was an even more poignant illustration of Levante’s decline. In a separate piece Lowe wrote of Raimon the groundsman, who arranges the SPanish teams’ flags in order of their league position on the flagpoles that run down the side of the pitch. It was a happy task four years ago; it will have been rather different this week as Raimon shifted Levante’s pennant to the last position on the right side of the stand.

The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.
The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.

So what has gone wrong? To put things in context, over-achieving is always a fragile business. Surviving in a league where the TV money doesn’t trickle down on crowds of between ten and fourteen thousand isn’t easy. Once you fail to get the fundamentals right, deterioration can set in fast, and three key factors have gone against Levante this year.

JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job
JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job

Firstly, their success has been on the back of some excellent coaching. The trouble is, when you show your quality at Levante the natural next step is to move on. Luis Garcia established the side in the top division in impressive style, and his predecessor, the much loved Juan Ignacio Martínez, took his work a step further. After a couple of sure-footed managerial appointments, the club’s luck was always likely to run out though – show me a club that have made three consecutive good choices of coach – and Levante haven’t bucked the trend. If Rubi, the new man, is a gem, then they might have a chance, but my money’s on him not being in the hot seat by the end of the campaign. Rubi’s credentials – a spell on the staff at Barsa and an isolated, albeit impressive, successful campaign at Girona in fifteen years of coaching, leave him feeling like a punt more than a sure thing. But then Levante were never in a position to draft in a sure thing, were they?

Rubi: just happy to be here
Rubi: just happy to be here

Secondly, any good players Levante might uncover are always going to snapped up by someone with more cash. From Felipe Caicedo through Arouna Koné to Kaylor Navas, players have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard to constantly dig up diamonds in the rough, so there’s bound to be an inevitable creep downwards in quality. If you want a graphic illustration of this point: consider this. Navas, on current form for Real Madrid, might just be the best keeper in the world. They’ve replaced him with Rubén, whose most memorable contribution to a Levante match was this, when he was a Málaga player. Clearly he stuck in the Levante scouts’ minds!

So who have Levante lined up as their latest find, to groom and sell on? Deyverson is an interesting striker, but there’s work to be done if he’s to make a step up from here: a blunt performance against Real was prematurely ended by a red card for diving, which summed up his and his team’s day.

A red for Deyverson
A red for Deyverson

And then what do you have? Nabil Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit, show flashes of quality, and threaten to do something decisive without ever quite managing it. He’s probably not so much fun to watch if you’re relying on him to pull something out of the fire for your team, and he’s not even Levante’s if they wanted to turn a profit on him.

And then there’s Roger, who runs about a lot.

nabil_ghilas

Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit

The third issue is hard to define, never mind to address. The quality of players haemorrhaging out is one thing; their character is quite another. Losing leaders like Sergio Ballesteros is not an issue which is easy to address. Juanfran remains, but his half time substitution against Real Sociedad illustrated the danger of relying on a 39-year old to hold your defence together and provide character. Juanfran has been a fine player and a great servant to the Expendables,  but there comes a time when even their value expires.

The cruel thing about it all is that while the dismissal of Alcaraz was inevitable, the Real defeat really did illustrate one of the classic patterns of football, played out throughout the ages. There were signs of promise in the last couple of weeks. Okay, they’d lost five of the last seven, which is relegation form in anyone’s book. But some of those performances offered up hope. Obviously there was the derby win over Villarreal, a terrific victory against a side tilting at top spot and in fine form.


Admittedly the Yellow Submarine had a player dismissed in the first half but still, the way a usually progressive side retreated so completely into their shell said something about how Levante imposed themselves on the game. Anyone who saw José Luis Morales and Toño ripping down the flanks and delivering a stream of crosses into the box would have thought this was a side with something about it.


The following week Levante arrived at El Bernabéu and showed plenty of cojones in a 3-0 defeat which saw them stretch their former keeper Navas when the result had yet to be cemented. They’d also shown heart to fight back from two down to claim a draw against Eibar, La Liga’s feistiest side.

But that’s how football goes, isn’t it? Teams start to show promise, often exhibiting fight in defeat against superior opponents, and you hope that level of performance will be sustained and lead to an improvement in results. But once they come up against beatable opposition, all that promise melts away and the cold facts of six points from nine games is all that’s left. The street smarts of Garcia, the quality of Navas, the heart of Ballesteos were all gone. So what’s left for Levante?

Last Chance To See: Juan Carlos Valerón

Their remaining time on the pitch is running out: some bewitched us and are embarking on a final lap of honour; others won’t be missed until they’re gone. It’s time to raise our hats to the players who won’t be around forever.

1175351055_0[1]

Last night Juan Carlos Valerón watched his side’s latest collapse from his new position: the bench. Sadly, it looks like the career of our of football’s more delicate talents of the last couple of decades is going to end in sadly subdued circumstances.

At the age of 37, and with a history of injury running through his career, this might well be his last campaign. Valerón never quite fulfilled his potential, but that’s no reason not to value him.

His elegant style, drifting between midfield and attack, finding space and delivering killer passes with accuracy and artistry, has always caught the eye. Sometimes, it threatened to take him to the very peak of the game, yet that promise always faded at the crucial moment.

He was a regular member of a Spanish side whose nature is hard to imagine now, in this era of dominance for Vicente Del Bosque’s side: they were packed with talent but constantly under performed. Valeron’s international credentials include over fifty caps and trips to three disastrous finals tournaments, on both continental and world stages.

For his clubs, Valerón was often a leading light, yet the success he deserved constantly evaded him. He sparkled for an Atletico side which was relegated, then was the beating heart of Deportivo’s brief blossoming at the peak of European football. Yet their dream was unfulfilled: they narrowly lost out to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the semi-final and fell a missed penalty short of clinching the Spanish title. Valerón was always there, always prompting, always falling just short.

And then came the decline. A series of serious knee injuries punched a hole in the heart of his career, and inevitably Depor crumbled in his absence. He dragged himself back onto the pitch and tried to inspire the club with whom he’d signed a huge contract at his peak, never once giving the impression he regretted signing away the rest of his career to the Galicians.

As relegation loomed two seasons ago he beavered away in a doomed attempt to turn back the tide. Needing a win in the final game, Valerón was brilliant. He created chance after chance; his team mates squandered them. And the Depor dream had died.

Except there were still a couple more twists left in Valerón’s story. Depor, stricken off the pitch and demoralised on it, somehow dusted themselvs off and attacked the Liga Adelante with vigour. Valerón shone, leading his beloved side back at the first attempt.
Valeron[1]
Things were beautifully set up for this season to be a valedictory tour of La Liga for him, bringing back memories of the warmth Gianfranco Zola experienced when he made the rounds of Serie A one last time with Cagliari. Valerón has never quite been able to beat the odds though, and Depor’s promotion had merely papered over the cracks of their massive financial problems. Valerón’s story was clearly never meant to be so straightforward though, and it appears that farewell tour will be denied him.

Things started well enough: he was featuring regularly at the start of the season, starting fourteen of the seventeen games before the winter break, with two further substitute appearances, and being nursed through the campaign by being left out of the Copa del Rey squad.

There were flashes of the old brilliance too: in the Derbi Gallego he earned a point with a beautiful assist, his dancing feet bewitching the Celta defence. But then circumstances changed.

Depor’s struggle to stay in the top division intensified, and coach Jose Luis Oltra paid with his job. His replacement, Domingos, has a much more practical aproach to coaching and wants to organise his side to fight against the rising odds of relegation. His reputation in previous jobs has been for creating sides which play with high energy both with and without the ball. Bad news for a luxury playmaker like Valerón.

Since Domingos’ arrival Valeron has been watching from the bench, managing just ten minutes on the pitch from four games. There’s no logical reason to assume this will change any time soon, unless the situation becomes so desperate that Domingos is forced to abandon his gameplan and throw caution to the wind.

It’s hardly the dignified farewell Valeron deserves, but if he’s succeeded in nothing else during his career, he’s clearly established himself as a loyal, decent man. He might be worthy of a more glorious send-off, but going down with the ship seems a sadly appropriate way to end a career which is filled with honour and a faint whiff of unfulfilled potential.