When Lucas Alcaraz was sacked as Coach of Levante in October, he left the team bottom of La Liga. Nearly three months on, they remain there under Rubi’s rule.
As always in Spain’s top division, the relegation battle has been very tight, with a good run of form being enough to haul a team towards mid-table and a bad one seeing teams dragged right down into the thick of it. Malaga were struggling for a while under Javi Gracia, but have now climbed to 11th place, nine points above the drop, whilst Espanyol have only claimed two points in 2016, leaving them in a precarious position just one point above the relegation zone, despite it looking like their habitual mid-table finish was on the cards.
Amongst the maelstrom of the fluctuating fight there has been one constant, and that has been Levante. Unfortunately for the Valencians, their time is running out. After Alcaraz saved them last season with a 14th placed finish, albeit only two points out of the relegation places, their start to this campaign was disastrous. They had only won once when Rubi came along, and as is expected with a new Coach, with the exception of Gary Neville perhaps, players reacted well and performances naturally improved. But performances do not guarantee results, and that is Levante’s problem.
In 15 games under Rubi, there have been three wins, two draws and 10 losses in the League. That is simply not good enough for Les Granotes to have any chance of beating the drop - their form has left them five points off getting out of the mire in which they find themselves. The sad thing is that their fall has been coming. Since Juan Ignacio Martinez got Levante into the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history in the 2011-12 campaign, their stock as a La Liga club has diminished.
Signings have not had the desired effect, apart from David Barral and this year’s top scorer Deyverson, and despite showing promise, youth products like Victor Camarasa, Ruben Garcia and Ivan Lopez have not exactly set the Cuitat de Valencia alight. They may have done so sporadically but to do it single-handedly is another proposition altogether.
There have been encouraging signs, such as spirited performances at home to Barcelona and away at Celta Vigo, where the squad gave a good account of themselves, and furthermore, the form of the aforementioned Deyverson and winger Jose Morales has been admirable in the circumstances. They have been the team’s best performers without doubt. But overall there doesn’t seem to be enough quality in the line-up.
The club attempted to rectify that in the January transfer window, with as many as five players coming in. This included a club record fee being paid for Colombian winger Mauricio Cuero. The 23-year-old impressed in Argentina but has yet to make an impact as of yet. It could prove to be a successful signing, but for a team who are fighting for their lives, it’s hard to expect a player who has never played in Europe to change fortunes.
Bringing in Lucas Orban from neighbours Valencia looked sensible as a way of shoring up the defence, and the gamble on Giuseppe Rossi was definitely worth taking if the Italian can recapture any of his form before injuries took their toll on the former Villarreal forward. However, the signing of Rossi could in fact be a hindrance on Rubi’s side - Deyverson has not scored since the 29-year-old made his debut, and the Brazilian has been restricted in the amount of space afforded to him because the areas on the pitch that he has occupied all season are suddenly being intruded on.
There were looks of bewilderment around the Ciutat de Valencia when Deyverson was withdrawn against Barcelona, and perhaps Rubi’s persistence with Rossi could come at the cost of their top scorer’s form.
It was testament to the team’s struggles on Sunday when a club with similar resources outplayed them. Eibar’s 2-0 win took them into a Europa League spot, showing what can be achieved with smart, careful and clever planning. The season Levante qualified for that competition, Eibar had just won promotion into Spain’s second division. How times have changed.
Levante staying up is looking increasingly unlikely, but it is still possible. They still have to face Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, but the games that are absolutely crucial are the ones against the teams around them. Crunch matches with Sporting Gijon, Granada, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano await, fixtures Levante must win if they are to stay in La Liga. The next game is always the most important though, starting with Getafe at home on Friday night.
“We’re very happy for the fans’ support, and we feel bad that we didn’t make them happy, but our players are fighting the maximum to pull the team afloat,” Rubi has been quoted as saying. “I’m happy because the fans came to cheer the team on, and my players acknowledged their efforts.”
Levante will certainly need all the help they can get for them to escape the slump that they have found themselves in all season long.