When George Allen became coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins in 1971, he traded draft picks for veteran players, and the "Over-the-Hill Gang" that resulted (average age 31) went on to post the team's best record in nearly 30 years and appear in a Super Bowl.
And now, 40 years later, La Liga is agog with the similar exploits of another group of veterans. Levante can go to the top of the table all alone if they win in El Madrigal tomorrow. At home, they've beaten Real Madrid(!), Espanyol, and Malaga. Away, they've drawn against Getafe and Racing Santander, but then defeated Rayo and Betis. They come in having won five in a row, morale is sky-high, and 36 year-old defender and captain Sergio Ballesteros has become a cult hero after outsprinting Cristiano Ronaldo in injury time to preserve their astonishing win.
As Levante's 2010-11 season ticket commercial put it, "we don't sign players with Golden Balls. We sign players WITH BALLS". Even so, to say the Granotes' form is unexpected is putting it mildly. Last year Levante (who had just been promoted back to the Primera) started slowly, but under coach Luis Garcia Plaza, they picked up steam in the second half of the campaign, at one point going 12 matches without loss (and recording a memorable song that became a La Liga sensation) and eventually finishing a comfortable 14th.
But during the summer Plaza departed for Getafe (which ought to tell you something) and the team signed their leading scorer from 2010-11, loanee Felipe Caicedo, only so they could sell him to Lokomotiv Moscow. Levante replaced Plaza with Juan Ignacio Martínez, a 47-year old coach who had just guided Cartagena to a 13th place in the Segunda Divisíon, and replaced Caicedo with....well, nobody really. Not a permanent signing, that is.
You see, Levante (even for Spanish football clubs) was a financial basket case only a few years ago, and money is tight. So Levante spent the summer picking up castoffs for free and negotiating loan deals, since Levante have the smallest budget in La Liga (€23 million). One of those loan players, Koné from Sevilla, has taken Caicedo's spot.
The back four (including former Villarreal man Javi Venta) average 34 years of age, and they line up in front of Uruguayan keeper Munua, aged 33. The midfield has leading scorer Juanlu (31 years old, 3 goals), Cape Verde international Valdo (30 years old, 1 goal), ex-Numancia man José Barkero (32 years old, 2 goals) and two youngsters (really!)--Xavi Torres, who played 35 matches for Levante last year, and Vicente Iborra, a 23 year-old product of Levante's youth system who has been turning heads with his recent performances, even being linked to Villarreal!!
And up front, it's the aforementioned Koné, 32 year-old Ruben Suarez, Liverpool flop and ex-PAOK loanee Nabil El-Zhar, and Arsenal loanee Wellington Silva. Hardly the stuff of legend. But here they are.
Their back four has only allowed three goals so far. They're physical (Levante gets called for 15 fouls a game) and they seem to get under the skin of opponents. At least, opponents have had men sent off in five of their seven games so far. They are happy to defend first--they typically see only about 35-40% of possession--but they make their possession count. And given our difficulties in breaking down defensive-minded sides, we won't have it easy tomorrow.
Remember: last year, Villarreal lost to Levante in El Madrigal, 1-0. Our only other losses at home were to Barcelona and Real Madrid. And with Barcelona's draw against Sevilla, a Levante win would put them top of the table for the first time ever. It would be a great story, certainly. But we need to keep it from happening.
Marco Ruben has recovered from his broken foot and is included in the squad, as are Musacchio, Marcos Senna and Camuñas, all of whom have had niggles of late. Missing are Ángel (still recovering from injury), and Wakaso (coach's decision).
Goalkeepers: Diego López and César.
Defenders: Mario, Zapata, Gonzalo, Musacchio, Marchena and Catalá.
Midfielders: Bruno, Marcos Senna, Borja Valero, De Guzmán, Hernán Pérez, Cani, Gerard and Camuñas.
Forwards: Marco Ruben and Rossi.
Surely we'll see something more like a 4-4-2 and an attacking lineup tomorrow. We don't need both Bruno and another defensive midfielder, we need creativity in the offensive end. Cani, Borja, de Guzman and Bruno start for me, with Rossi and Ruben or Pérez. Whichever of those two doesn't start I expect to come off the bench. I would be happier to see Zapata in his natural center back position, so it's Mario--Zapata--Musacchio--Catala in the back for me.
The Yellow Submarine needs a win. We've been playing better of late, but have been snakebit when it comes to results. Frankly, while I'd love to see a fast, flowing Villarreal slice open Levante and score some beautiful goals, points in the table are worth more than style points right now.
We need three points tomorrow, and we can do it. Endavant Villarreal