A colourful chapter in the history of Spain’s top flight ended on Monday night as Levante were relegated from the Primera Division after a 3-1 defeat at Malaga.
Their fate was ultimately sealed after two episodes of late heartbreak in the space of a week. They appeared to be on course for a 2-0 home win against Athletic Bilbao only for the Basques to score twice in the final two minutes to draw the game and deal a dagger to the heart of Levante’s fading survival hopes. The final blow was struck by Malaga who also scored twice in the final couple of minutes to seal a 3-1 win over Levante on Monday and relegate the Valencia club to the Segunda Division after a six year spell in the top flight.
Once the disappointment fades, which may take some time, Levante fans can at least reflect on what has been the most successful period in the club’s history. Prior to their promotion in 2010, they’d only ever spent a total of five years in the Primera Division and never more more than two consecutive seasons so to survive and at times flourish in one of the strongest leagues in the world for a prolonged period of time was a real achievement from which they will look back on with fondness.
They didn’t finish lower than 14th in any of their first five seasons following promotion with the 2011-12 campaign, when they enjoyed their best ever league finish of 6th place, the obvious highlight.
It was a season of firsts for the club under the stewardship of Juan Ignacio Martinez. After commencing the campaign with 2 draws, they racked up 7 straight wins including a 1-0 home win over Real Madrid to top La Liga for the first time in the club’s history. Although they predictably wouldn’t be able to maintain such form for the entire season, 15 goals from Arouna Koné helped the club qualify for Europe for the first time.
European football at the Estadi Ciutat de València saw Levante look well at home in the Europa League in which they progressed from their group and comfortably saw off Greek giants Olympiakos on route the last 16 when they would fall at the hands of a strong Rubin Kazan side.
While they couldn’t repeat their European qualification, they’d enjoy plenty more successful days with a string of derby wins over city rivals Valencia perhaps the highlight. Guiseppe Rossi’s winner in March gave Levante a fourth consecutive home win against their neighbours, who had never previously had their complete and utter dominance in their own city brought into question.
Levante also go into their final home game in the top flight this weekend against Atletico Madrid having not lost at home to Diego Simeone’s impressive side during any of the previous 5 seasons. Their ability to get results, particularly at their atmospheric home ground, against sides with bigger budgets and more star quality has been one of the main reasons why they’d been able to achieve safety with little drama until this current campaign.
Their tale has been in many ways typical of the struggles of the smaller teams in Spain’s top flight. Levante have had to battle on despite constantly losing better players, while successful managers have also departed with alarming regularity making it difficult to put a long-term plan in place.
Luis Garcia, the man who guided the club to promotion and survival in their first season back in the Primera Division left at the end of that campaign for Getafe. Juan Ignacio Martínez, who had moved the club onto the next level by securing European football also decided his future was better served elsewhere by switching to Valladolid in 2013. His successor Joaquín Caparrós, also did well but left for Granada just a week after signing a new 2 year contract the following summer.
All three on the face of it made little more than sideways moves but the understandable reluctance of Levante to be dragged back into the farcical financial mire that had surrounded the latter days of their previous stint in the top flight, made it hard for the club to compete financially with even the smaller clubs in the division.
Levante’s decline began with the ill-fated appointment of José Luis Mendilibar to replace Caparrós for the 2014-15 season. He would last only 8 matches and left the club in the drop-zone and although Lucas Alcaraz would steer the club to eventual safety it was clear that Levante were no longer a solid mid-table outfit but one that were likely to struggle this campaign without the resources to seriously improve the side.
The relegation that was confirmed on Monday had been coming for a while in truth. Levante have propped up the division after 24 of the 36 match-days so far this season with a pitiful 6 points from 18 away games one of the root causes of their troubles. They’ve still been a tough nut to crack on home soil and have played some good football at times but the defensive organisation and ability to shut out teams that had been the foundation for much of their previous success in this league has completely eluded them ever since Caparrós not to mention iconic Levante keeper Keylor Navas left the club in the summer of 2014.
In truth there hasn’t been a great deal of difference between the Levante of last season and the one of this. Rubi’s side has pretty much mirrored that of Lucas Alcaraz in that they concede too many goals and for all their bright spells in games, they remain too easy to play against.
The difference has been that the strength of the bottom end of the league is greater this year than it was last when newly promoted Cordoba were awful throughout the campaign, while Eibar’s utter collapse in the Spring saw them fall into the bottom three only to be granted a reprieve by Elche’s financial problems.
This term the newly promoted clubs have all been much more competitive with Las Palmas and Real Betis particularly impressing in the comfort of mid-table while the likes of Deportivo and Eibar have also kicked on to another level. That has made Levante in particular far more vulnerable and it is no great no surprise that they will be playing in the Segunda Division next term.
On a more positive note they drop down in a better state than they did the last time they suffered relegation from the Primera Division in 2008. They did so then with just 26 points and more worryingly reported debts of €18 million that had led to their inability to pay players in the closing months of the season, something which had unquestionably started to affect performances with Levante’s players once famously refusing to move in the opening seconds of a game against Deportivo in protest.
This time they go down with a firmer financial footing and surely a better chance of coming back up. Their 6 year stint in La Liga has demonstrated that the club is not merely destined to float around the lower divisions of Spanish football with the odd token appearance in the top flight.
They may opt to stick with Rubi, who has a solid track record in the lower leagues and although the Segunda Division is a competitive league that the likes of Zaragoza are finding tough to get out of, you’d expect Levante to at least be competing at the right end of it and this time it would be no surprise to see them return to the Primera Division in the not too distant future.