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Perhaps the only thing that made Getafe manager, Luis García, smile on the final day of last season was being informed after a depressingly lame 0-2 defeat to visiting Zaragoza that the club he used to manage, Levante, had qualified for Europe for the first time in their history. Getafe, the team for whom García had left the season before could well have been sitting in that sixth spot, but instead the players seemed to lack the ambition and drive required in the final run-in, preferring to coast into the summer instead.
For Levante, the achievement was just another milestone in what has been a truly remarkable journey over nearly three years, an adventure that has seen a team of relegation certainties at the start of 2010 become surprise-packages mid-2011 to big time players at the end of 2012.
Levante are still a team of veterans, warhorses, dirty dogs, fighters and tireless scrappers fuelled on pizza, but it's a collective that simply doesn't know when to stop. From a miraculous fight against relegation in the 2010-11 season, to winning a European place in the next campaign, to round 15 of the current season and a 4-0 thrashing of Mallorca. Levante currently lie in sixth place and a point from the top four, in the knock-out rounds of the Europa League and in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey; just rewards for fans who were able to buy season tickets to all three competitions for only €160.
Those supporters rose to their feet to applaud the players from the field after Sunday's victory, which came just three days after a Europa League battle against Hannover to see which team would finish top of the group - a rare fight Levante lost in a 2-2 draw.
If ever there was a team that deserved a season of mid-table coasting after an exhausting two years (and an exhausting week), it's Levante. But that simply isn't in the DNA of the club. Although Levante still have modest dreams - and modest means to power them - the philosophy of the team is the simple notion of trying to win every game and see what happens next. It's a philosophy encapsulated by a message in the players' tunnel that reads "You've come here to play, you can win, but you are definitely going to suffer."
Levante's tactics are hardly ground-breaking and are designed for a team that's made up of players on the wrong side of their playing careers - such as 37-year-old defender and captain, Sergio Ballesteros - who are being thrown into games on Thursdays and Sundays. Possession is willingly ceded to the opposition. Levante beat Valencia 1-0 in October with just 29% of the ball. Two weeks later Valencia picked up a point against Sevilla in the Sánchez Pizjuán in a goalless draw with 30% possession, one shot on target and two corners.
The strategy is to allow the opposition deep into the Levante half, very aggressively win the ball back and then hit it long to a fast, mobile striker. This season, that figure is Obafemi Martins, who has scored six league goals since joining at the end of September on a free transfer from Rubin Kazan. The forward admitted that his first introduction to the team was watching a viral video of Ballesteros out-sprinting Cristiano Ronaldo in the defeat of Real Madrid last season.
Martins' move highlights Levante's smart strategy of picking up strikers who have lost their way on free transfers, polishing them up and selling them on. Last season Arouna Koné hit 15 goals after a terrible spell at Sevilla and was sold to Wigan for a profit of €3.8million. The season before that, Felipe Caicedo was taken on loan from Manchester City before being bought for €1million and sold to Lokomotiv Moscow for €7.5million. For a team with a budget of just €22million, it's an important way to make ends meet and ensure admirably low season ticket prices for the supporters.
The figure leading Levante for the past season-and-a-half sums up the club's spirit. Juan Ignacio Martínez's background is 15 years spent managing in Spain's tough lower leagues. It sounds lazy to describe him as an authentic character and 'a real football man', but that's what the Levante manager is. A coach who is not afraid to take on the stronger characters in the dressing room but a figure who is able to squeeze everything out of his squad and refuses to get carried away by his side's success until 42 points are on the board. "I'm going to celebrate with a paella and tomorrow we'll go back to work," was JIM's big plan after the Mallorca victory.
Levante have achieved what people said would never be possible by surviving the drop to La Segunda, before qualifying for the Europa League and then reaching the knock-out stages. Champions League football next season simply can't be ruled out for the most effective and admirable team in La Liga.
Betis and Spain midfielder, Beñat Etxebarria, perhaps best summed up the genius of Leo Messi - who broke the record for most goals in a calendar year with 86 - by revealing what he thinks when watching the Barça player from his sofa - "I just think that it's impossible to do the things he does."
Round 15 Results
Espanyol 2-2 Sevilla
Real Sociedad 1-1 Getafe
Málaga 4-0 Granada
Valladolid 2-3 Real Madrid
Osasuna 0-1 Valencia
Levante 4-0 Mallorca
Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Celta Vigo
Atlético Madrid 6-0 Deportivo
Betis 1-2 Barcelona
Rayo Vallecano v Zaragoza (Monday)
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter.