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Levante aiming high, despite having a squad costing less than half of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee

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Hard work and shrewd management have Levante succeeding against the odds once again. Out of the team that played in Levante’s final game of the 2011/2012 season in which they finished 6th in La Liga, only 5 players remain at the Cuitat De Valencia, this time round enjoying ninth place.

To finish that high 2 years ago, with the club crippled by debts and being forced to live off the scraps of loans and free transfers, was a remarkable achievement and this season they are doing it again. Seven points off sixth place and on a run of 8 games unbeaten, Europe may again, somehow, be on the agenda.

Nearly all of Levante’s recent history has been spent up against the wall, from the debts that built up to 88 million Euros to the club appearing in court over unpaid wages in 2008, a season that eventually saw them relegated. Their second relegation in four years saw the Valencian club enter administration but with a squad that contained just 10 players the start of his reign, Luis Garcia took them back up to the Primera in 2010 having spent not a single penny on transfer fees.

It was astonishing that Garcia kept them in the top flight, utilising a budget of just 17 million Euros, the smallest in the division, to finish 14th before the manager left for Getafe. In came Juan Ignacio Martinez but he also found himself working under strict austerity. A deal was done to sell Felipe Caicedo to Spartak Moscow in order to service debts and although he spent roughly £250,000 between Miguel Pallardo and Pedro Lopez, it was again free transfers and loans that he had to work with. On a wage bill of just 6.5 million Euros, it was a miracle that Martinez took them as high as sixth.

Two years later and they are daring to dream again. After last season’s respectable finish of eleventh, Martinez has moved on to Real Valladolid to be succeeded by Joaquin Caparros, the diminutive 58 year old coach who boasts a wealth of experience coaching in Spain.

Still, no money is being spent. Vicente Iborra left for Sevilla in the summer to bring in £5.8 million into the club’s coffers but only £264,000 of it was spent, on Cameroon’s 29 year old forward Aloys Nong. Senegalese striker Baba was loaned from Sevilla but the rest of the incoming deals, 7 to be exact, were all frees, including 30 year old Spanish striker David Barral from Turkish club Orduspor.

With 6 goals, Barral is Levante’s top scorer while Nabil El Zhar has 4 and Baba sits on 3, as many as the defensive midfielder Papouka Diop. Goals have not been their strong point, only 7 clubs have scored less than Levante’s total of 26 so far, but the main reason behind their strong league position is the parsimonious defence. On 31 goals conceded, it is Real and Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, the league’s current top 4, that have conceded less than Levante. Only Atletico and Barcelona have kept more clean sheets.

The key behind such solidity has been continuity. Out of the regular back four of Loukas Vyntra, Juanfran, David Navarro and Pedro Lopez, only Vyntra, with 19, has started less than 20 of the club’s 26 games and, considering all four of them are over the age of 30, that has been remarkable. Juanfran, at the tender age of 37 years old, has missed just a single match due to picking up a red card against Atletico Madrid, he has managed every minute of the other 25 games.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas has attracted the interest of both AC Milan and Liverpool such has been the standard of his performances between the posts, the 27 year old is likely to be number 1 for Costa Rica this summer at the World Cup.

Playing in a rigidly organised 4-2-3-1, Caparros has also reaped the benefit of a stable partnership in front of the back four, Diop managing 23 appearances alongside Simao Mate, who has made 21. Together they have formed an effective defensive midfield screen. Simao, a Super League winner with Panathinaikos and a highly rated talent during his time with the Greek club, was plucked from the obscurity of being released from Chinese side Shandong Luneng Taishan last March, while Diop, relegated with Racing Santander in 2012, was signed for 100,000 Euros.

It is the tested formula of casting the net for players who have been discarded at other clubs and are therefore desperate for another chance.

Andres Ivanschitz of Mainz joined last summer after the German club let his contract run down despite the Austrian midfielder scoring 7 times in his final year in the Bundesliga. Playing on the left of Levante’s attacking trio of midfielders, the 30 year old has managed 5 assists, the most at the club, while only Diop has made more chances than the 21 Ivanschitz has forged for his team-mates.

Nabil El-Zhar, taken from Liverpool in 2011 after a difficult spell on Merseyside, has found first team opportunities sparse this season but when he has played he has been effective, managing 3 assists to go with his 4 goals. The Moroccan’s pace is utilised by Capaross’s system of remaining organised to soak pressure before counter attacking quickly with long balls.

Caparros, straining his limited resources to get every ounce out of them, doesn’t preach a style that is particularly aesthetic, with an average of just 36.5% possession it is by far the lowest in La Liga this year and they are also bottom of the pass completion rate table with a 68.4% success rate. It is a system that relies heavily on defensive organisation, shutting out attacking space before launching direct breaks out of the back. It is what befell Barcelona and all their attacking might in a recent 1-1 draw.

Barral’s work rate and energy makes him a useful lone striker while Ivanschitz, Jordi Xumetra and Ruben Garcia take advantage of knock downs and scraps to scheme behind him.

20 year old Garcia, the winger with electric pace who rose from Valencia’s highly-productive academy, has been considered as one of La Liga’s best talents and after hitting 3 goals and 4 assists last season to spark the interest of Borussia Dortmund, his is a hotly-tipped future despite experiencing a dip in form this time around. Levante’s best youth product since winger Vicente was sold to Valencia for £4 million in 2001. Here is a detailed Scout Report on Ruben Garcia.

19 year old Jason has come through the Cantero to make just 1 substitute appearance but it is Garcia’s emergence that has so far been an anomaly to a club that has been forced to scrimp by on bargains and deals for Expendables, or rescuing cast-offs from other sides that are looking for a career renaissance. Players like Arouna Kone, Asier Del Horno, Obafemi Martins, Juanlu and Caicedo, who hit 13 goals in the one season he spent with Levante.

On a squad assembled on the lowest of budgets, worth a total in the region of 35 million Euros, not even half of what this weekend’s opponents Real Madrid lavished on Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, and a total wage bill between 11-14 million Euros, only Elche’s and Celta Vigo’s is lower, it is another miracle that Levante are not just competing in La Liga, but aiming high again too.

The 13 million Euros Les Granotes earned from the league’s television rights is just a fraction of what the division’s wealthier clubs earn and although they continue to punch above their weight, only an average of just over 14,000 fans go to see them do it in a stadium that can house 25,000, the story retains a fairytale plot.

Oh, and that 88 million Euro debt, it has now been halved and the club expect to announce a profit next year. Just another milestone for La Liga’s incredible club.

Adam Gray

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