What a remarkable few months it has been for Levante UD.
It’s just over two months since they took the difficult decision to sack manager Juan Muñiz – who led the Valencian side back into the top division last season – and replace him with B team manager Paco López.
At the time, Levante were just one point outside the relegation zone, having played a game more than 18th-placed Las Palmas. They were ten points behind Alavés, the team directly above them in the table. The threat of relegation was very real.
Levante president Quico Catalán’s decision to appoint López, who had never managed in the top flight before, was a last, desperate roll of the dice to try and keep his club in the top flight.
It may have been more luck than judgement, but Catalán’s gamble has paid huge dividends. The same group of players who looked limited, ineffective and devoid of confidence under Muñiz have been totally refocused and reenergised under López, and there has been a dramatic change in the club’s fortunes since the managerial switch.
Since López was appointed, Levante have taken 25 points from a possible 30, more than any other team in La Liga in the same period. López has won eight of his ten games as manager, a massive improvement on the three out of 27 achieved under Muñiz. La Liga survival has been secured in comfort and style, and Els Granotes are now an incredible 17 points clear of the relegation zone, which could become 20 if they beat Celta de Vigo in their final game of the season on Sunday. If they win at Balaídos and other results go their way, they could finish the season as high as tenth – a truly remarkable turnaround given they were deep in relegation trouble just two short months ago.
Nobody expected López to be able to effect any meaningful improvement with the squad he inherited. The feeling was that Muñiz hadn’t done particularly badly, but that this group of players had reached the limit of their abilities.
López only made a couple of subtle changes to the team’s set-up and the squad’s mentality, but the impact of those changes has been breathtaking. He ditched the 4-5-1 formation preferred by his predecessor in favour of a more attacking 4-4-2 formation, which helped to restore the players’ belief in their own ability. No longer were they setting up to avoid defeat, they were setting up to win. In the words of full-back Coke Andujar: “Paco’s style is braver than that of Muñiz.” Coke’s words suggest that the change to a more attacking formation has given the squad the assurance that they are good enough to win games at this level.
That new sense of confidence was evident in their latest win, which must surely rank as one of the greatest victories in the history of the club. Champions Barcelona were the heavy favourites for the match at the Estadi Ciutat de València on Sunday night, so much so that the visiting manager Ernesto Valverde felt confident enough that they could do the job without Lionel Messi, who was left out of the match-day squad.
Barça were made to pay for their hubris as a thrilling attacking display from Levante saw them charge to a 5-1 lead just after half-time. It looked like the visitors would salvage something from the game, as they reduced the deficit to 5-4 after 71 minutes, but Levante showed that they have plenty of grit and determination to match their attacking verve, and held on to record a victory that will live long in the memory.
Levante’s victory ended Barcelona’s record 43-game unbeaten run, and brought to an end their hopes of becoming the first team in the modern era to complete an unbeaten league season. It was also Levante’s first win over Barcelona since 1964, and was the first time that Barcelona have conceded five goals in a league game since December 2003.
The players’ celebrations after the game showed how much the victory and the club’s survival meant to them, and it was clear to whom they attribute their new-found success. They paraded López on their shoulders and bounced him in the air in recognition of the amazing turnaround he has engendered. There is an obvious mutual love between manager and players, and lifelong Levante fan López has clearly struck a chord with his talented but dispirited squad.
Now that safety has been assured, Levante have already begun to look to the future. López has been rewarded for his success with a new permanent contract, while captain José Luis Morales and influential midfielder Jefferson Lerma have signed new long-term deals. They may have one of the smallest budgets in the league, and dwell forever in the shadow of neighbours Valencia, but for once there are reasons to be cheerful for Levante, and the foundations have been laid for further progression next season.
López said that the squad’s motto in the week leading up to the Barcelona game was “nothing is impossible”. That mantra sums up López’s brief spell in charge of Levante perfectly. The manner of their escape from the threat of relegation has been nothing short of miraculous. López and his rejuvenated squad have been pushing the limits of credulity week after week. Now, the stage is set for them to carry on redefining the boundaries of possibility into next season.