The battle to stay in the Spanish Primera División looks set to go to the wire this season with a host of teams involved in the dog-fight. On Sunday lunchtime, LLE headed to Valencia for the latest in our On the Road series, to check in on one of those clubs as Levante, winless in eight matches and only a point above the relegation zone, faced a crunch home clash against Espanyol.
The Estadi Ciutat de València may not be the first port of call for Spanish football aficionados looking to take in a game on the Iberian peninsular. It’s not even the first port of call in Valencia with a football scene that has for so long been dominated by the club that bears the name of the city and region.
The Mestalla is just 3km away, making Levante and Valencia the nearest neighbours in the Spanish top flight. Both stadiums are within easy reach of the centre of town by what is admittedly one of Europe’s most infrequent metro networks while heading the other way it’s not long until you reach the Playa de la Malvarrosa, Valencia’s famous sun-soaked beach where locals and visitors alike unwind during the hot summer months.
That heat can often set in as early as late April but Easter 2019 was not destined to be a sunny one in the Valencian region. Forecasts of heavy rain were at least proving false as supporters of Levante Unión Deportiva braved the wind and the unseasonably cool temperatures on the short walk from Machado Station to their team’s fifty year old home.
Levante were a Tercera División club when they initially moved into what was then the Estadio Antonio Román in 1969. Even by the year 2000 it had yet to host top flight football but the 21st Century has been pretty good to the Granotas (Frogs in Valencian), who have established themselves as Primera División regulars having appeared in La Liga in 8 of the last 9 seasons.
That being said brushes with relegation are pretty much the norm in this part of town. The tension that might grip some clubs at this point of the season, wasn’t really palpable in the streets around the stadium or the adjacent shopping mall, one of Valencia’s biggest, where fans were more likely to be enjoying a pre-match coffee and a tostada rather than a beer due to the midday kick-off.
Levante is often viewed as the distant poor relation of Valencia CF but with over 20,000 season ticket holders of their own, this is by no means a one-team city. Levante’s most recent game had been at the Mestalla, a 3-1 defeat to add to their relegation worries but a home fixture with Espanyol, a side who can certainly empathise with their status as ‘the other team’ in their own town, offered a chance to put a much needed three points on the board.
Paco López, a little over a year into the job, was starting to feel the heat for perhaps the first time in his reign with Levante having fallen from the top six to the bottom six in the space of just a few months. The 51 year old opted for four changes from the team that had lost at the Mestalla by introducing Borja Mayoral, Chema, Enis Bardhi and most notably Toño, making his first start since his release from prison on money laundering and extortion charges.
Espanyol didn’t have any criminal proceedings to contend with but did opt to leave Chinese superstar Wu Lei on the bench with youngster Javi Puado coming in for just his second senior start in attack.
A combination of the menacing looking clouds and early Easter Sunday kick-off seemed to have put a significant number of Levante’s season ticket holders off the idea of coming with hordes of empty blue and red seats dotted around the 26,000 capacity stadium. It wasn’t quite the atmosphere that the team perhaps needed to lift them out of their current slumber despite the best efforts of club staff who were busy handing out Levante flags as well as the Reial Senyera – the flag of the Valencian community, to supporters as the game got ready to kick off.
Espanyol’s game-plan was pretty apparent from the opening exchanges. They seemed happy to invite Levante onto them and try to play on the break and despite’s Levante’s initial control of the football, Espanyol’s sole real burst forward in the opening fifteen hours was an early indicator of how much joy they might have with that approach.
They perhaps should have made more of it but their second major attack of the game brought the opening goal with Sergi Darder picking out Espanyol’s top scorer Borja Iglesias who was allowed time and space to cut inside before thumping the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area. There wasn’t much Aitor Hernandez in the Levante goal could do as the ball whistled past him, the 60th time Levante had conceded in La Liga this season, more than any other team.
In one corner of the stadium, a few hundred Espanyol fans were jumping up and down and had reason to be happy with what they were seeing from their team who like Levante had faded following a bright start to the season. Curiously the main ‘singing’ section of home supporters was in the other corner at that end of the ground, as opposed to the more orthodox position of behind one of the goals.
They had less to cheer in a disjointed First Half display from the hosts, befitting of a side that had recorded just one home league win in four and a half months. They continued to enjoy much of the territory and were winning free-kicks and the odd corner but struggling to create many clear openings. Defender Rúben Vezo headed over perhaps the best of their opportunities.
However as the first period neared its conclusion, Espanyol really started to grow in confidence with the Catalans beginning to sense that a shaky Levante defence was a vulnerable one. The visitors had space to play in whenever they broke but their next big opportunity came from a set-piece with Aitor Fernández producing a brilliant double save to deny Spanish international Mario Hermoso.
There was still time for Espanyol to get the ball in the net again with Marc Roca firing another sweetly struck shot past the helpless Levante keeper but this time VAR intervened to give Levante a vital reprieve on the stroke of Half-Time. Even so, it was certainly going to be one of the most important team-talks Paco López had given during his 13 month tenure.
So far it had been a display that had done little to raise the spirits amongst a somewhat subdued crowd. Levante’s small but noisy corner brigade had got a bit of stadium-wide clapping going at one stage but there was no getting away from the fact that it was a poor attendance for such a key fixture. The official figure of 16,876 was only a fraction above their lowest of the season and well below the season average of around 20,000.
It wasn’t the most intimidating of atmospheres but any noise from the two core sets of fans was reverberating around the stadium. Despite the lackluster performance, the only real sign of dissent from the home supporters had come when a long hoof forward from Aitor had carried all the way through to Diego López in the opposite goal.
Any Half Time conversations would be quickly drowned out by an eclectic mix of music that was blaring out over the PA System in all four corners of the ground. A curious mix of jungle beats had provided the soundtrack to the pre-game build-up. The interval brought pop music and also bizarrely The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’, the soundtrack to the trials and tribulations of the English national team.
Like many Spanish grounds, the Estadi Ciutat de València allows people to leave the stadium to make use of nearby refreshment stalls or just go for a walk at Half-Time. However that rule actually only applies to season ticket holders, a fact that is helpfully only explained once you try to re-enter the stadium with your match ticket. Just when it looked like LLE was going to miss the whole Second Half, a kind Levante fan agreed to swipe her season card, which was seemingly good enough for the officious stewards who had already sent another unfortunate single ticket purchaser home.
On the pitch, the Second Half was just getting going and started in a similar fashion to much of the First. Levante were looking a bit more assured in what they were trying to do at least but Espanyol continued to look menacing on the break. They were almost playing Levante at their own game, with the Valencia club having had much of their success earlier in the season with a counter-attacking style using the pace of the likes of José Luis Morales.
That approach had fired Levante to victories at the Benito Villamarín and the Bernabéu earlier in the campaign. They’d also scored four away to struggling Celta Vigo to apparently quash any lingering relegation worries in February. However with just three points from eight games since, there was suddenly an air of desperation hovering over Levante’s season.
They were now at least starting to threaten the Espanyol goal. Real Madrid loanee Borja Mayoral had an effort blocked and a weak header comfortably saved moments later. He was a bit of a surprise inclusion in the side with just three goals all season and his finishing was certainly lacking in conviction.
Jason was causing problems down the right flank for the hosts and on the hour mark Paco López decided to throw a bit of caution to the wind by hauling off Toño, who was presumably short on match fitness following his stint behind bars, and throwing on top scorer Roger Marti.
Almost immediately Levante struck back although neither the coach nor Roger could really claim to have had anything to do with it. An inviting free-kick delivery from José Campaña caught the Espanyol defensive line off-guard and Rúben Vezo was left alone to stoop low and head home from six yards to level the game at 1-1.
Suddenly the whole mood around the stadium had lifted but Espanyol swiftly delivered the perfect response as Levante’s defensive flaws reared up again. A looped ball into the Levante penalty area seemed to hover in the air for an eternity faced with the swirling wind that continued to blow around Estadi Ciutat de València. When it finally dropped, the ball found its way through to Marc Roca via a couple of Espanyol heads and the midfielder fired home from close-range to restore the visitors’ advantage.
For all their problems, Levante have been an entertaining watch this season, with the division’s worst defence but sixth best goalscoring record so it was no great surprise when the Second Half flurry of goals continued with the game’s fourth just five minutes later.
It was a strike to rival Borja Iglesias’ opener for goal of the game as a neat one-two between Rúben Rochina and Borja Mayoral on the edge of the Espanyol penalty culminated in Rochina firing in a stinging left-footed drive that was too hot for Diego López to handle.
Things took another turn for the worse for Levante and Rochina just two minutes after the goal though. Perhaps still pumped up from netting the leveller, the one-time Blackburn midfielder dived into a challenge on Borja Iglesias in the middle of the park. It was only slightly mistimed but it was enough for referee Jesús Gil to dish out a second yellow, ensuring that Levante would have to play out the final fifteen minutes with ten men.
The red card seemed to get the crowd going though and for the first time in the game, there was suddenly a real collective sense of players and supporters pulling together for the same cause. If anything the red card and increase in volume made Levante even more intent on going for the winner and they proceeded to enjoy their best spell of the game with just ten men.
The club’s name is in part attributed to the easterly Levant wind which was now fiercely blowing in from the Mediterranean coast in the direction of the goal the home team were attacking. It all seemed to be building up to a grandstand finale and Roger Marti went close to putting Levante 3-2 up but his effort was kept out by the feet of Diego López.
There was no sense of settling for what they had but that almost backfired on Levante as the visitors broke down the right with Hernan Pérez whose thumping strike clattered against the post and seemed to rebound past him at an ever greater velocity.
There was still time for Roger to go close again for Levante while another of the substitutes Coke gestured to the crowd to raise the volume levels again for one final push. They duly obliged but Levante couldn’t quite force the winner as the whistle blow with a Full Time score of 2-2.
The Estadi Ciutat de València quickly emptied to the sounds of the melodic club anthem sung by a female vocalist, a calming conclusion to what had been a frenetic final half hour. Paco López’s side will be back on home soil to chase that elusive victory again when they host Real Betis on Wednesday.
Despite being ten years older, Levante may never be as big as their boisterous neighbours but overall visitors to Valencia’s ‘other team’ will find a welcoming, family-orientated club, one without ideas above their station and they certainly add a welcome contrast to the football scene in the Comunitat Valenciana.
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Article via Mark Sochon – Contact: marksochon(at)hotmail.co.uk | @marksoc1 on Twitter