Dignity and doom: Levante succumb to inevitable in Bernabéu mauling
Adrián Cordero Vega ended it a second too early and not a moment too soon. The clock said 89.59 when the referee blew but it had been over almost from the start, and not just last night. Levante were a goal down after 12:42 at the Bernabéu; they were down-down as well, no longer able to resist the inevitable, the fate they had fought. “We’ve been been given up for dead many times but keep rising again,” said Alessio Lisci, their third coach this season and the only one to win a game, but this was a resurrection too far. Now they just wanted it finished, nothing left to give. “The players suffered the unspeakable,” their president said when at last it was, relegation confirmed long after it was known.
Six days earlier, Alessio said he “almost had a heart attack” when Gonzalo Melero’s last-minute penalty gave Levante a lifeline with a 2-1 win against Real Sociedad. A fortnight before, José Luis Morales, the captain, had broken down when he missed one of his own that would have equalised against Sevilla, but either side of that they had drawn with Valencia and hammered Granada 4-1. They had also beaten Villarreal 2-0. In six matches since the start of April, they had won three and lost two and those were 3-2s against Sevilla and against Barcelona, via a 92nd-minute Luuk de Jong goal.
All of which meant they arrived at the Bernabéu knowing that if they could beat Real Madrid they might just still survive. After all, their next game would be against Alavés, the team just above them, and their final match was against Rayo Vallecano, left with nothing to play for. They had won twice in three years at the Bernabéu and Madrid were already champions. They would be handed a guard of honour, which might soften them. And Madrid might even rotate. Even a draw would give Levante a tiny chance, allowing them to fight another day. No, it wasn’t likely, but it was something to cling to – a burning nail, as the Inquisition-inspired idiom has it.
“We knew what Cádiz [the team they had to catch] had done [losing 3-0 at Real Sociedad] and we knew that if we could win here, we could get closer, but it wasn’t to be. Madrid rolled over us after the first goal,” Sergio Postigo said afterwards. Ferland Mendy ran free to score it after 12 minutes. “That did us a lot of damage; you start thinking things you don’t want to be thinking … and then you succumb,” Morales admitted. If that wasn’t bad enough, Karim Benzema scored the second six minutes later. And that goal, Lisci said, “killed us”. It was done, they were already dead, but Madrid didn’t stop. Rodrygo made it three on 33 minutes, and Vinícius Júnior scored the fourth just before half-time. Three times Madrid had hit the post, too.
High in the north-east corner, about 400 Levante fans continued to sing. At one point, they even chanted “yes, we can”, but they knew they couldn’t. It was hard to watch: a team of players gone, yet obliged to stay there, taking the hits, barely able to protect themselves. Goalkeeper Dani Cárdenas, seen from close up, was a particularly tough watch. The ball in his net, he sat and stared into space, broken. He made saves – lots of them – but was still a picture of powerlessness, kicking the post, lurching as he stood alone, spasms of anger and frustration. It was as if he was desperately trying to shout it all out, shake it from his body, but it wouldn’t leave him and he couldn’t leave here. At half-time, despite being the furthest away, he was the first down the tunnel, just wanting out and fast.
They had all felt much the same way, this becoming a suffering, an act of penitence. It had been over on 12.42, but Madrid kept coming, ultimately rattling off almost 30 shots. For Levante, there were more than 77 minutes to endure, watching their own slow, inevitable descent into the second division, much as they had all season. For Vinícius, it was time to enjoy. Asked if he wanted to come off and rest in the second half, the Brazilian said no: he had a hat-trick to get, which he did. Benzema bamboozled Cárdenas to set one of them up. “Madrid dance on Levante’s tomb,” AS’s headline declared. “It’s a sad day for Levante. The best way to respect an opponent is to do your best,” Carlos Ancelotti said.
This had hurt, the final blow followed by more and more of them. It was 6-0 and everyone had seen enough. The referee, a profession not normally known for its empathy, brought it to an end early, an act of mercy. After five years, a fun time in primera, Levante were bottom and down, two weeks early. On the bench, Morales hid in the shadows, shirt over his face crying. Francisco Son was sobbing. Rúben Vezo came to comfort teammates, a tear of his own visible on his cheek. “All I can say is sorry,” the captain said when at last he could get some words out. “It’s terribly, terribly difficult. We weren’t good enough.”
The words that most hit were maybe the simplest of all. One journalist had presumably miscalculated the league table – Levante can actually still match Cádiz for points, but they have lost the head-to-head record – and asked Lisci how he was going to motivate his players for the final, almost impossible push. The coach paused a moment, hesitating, as if not sure what to say, how to break the news, then replied softly: “We’re down, Eugenio.”
There was a dignity in the way Lisci had responded; a dignity too in the way he had led his team, taking over in an emergency, a young coach in his first job trying to fix a problem not of his making. This was “cruel, but it is what it is”, Postigo said, “we weren’t worthy of this division”. “A culmination of mistakes,” the president Quico Catalan called it, putting his own position in the hands of the foundation that owns the club. Financially, they face a €10m shortfall, the signings had almost no impact, the sporting director was sacked and they have been through three coaches.
The first of them, Paco López, is Levante: the former player and B team coach took over in 2018 and won eight of 11 to save them, then comfortably kept them in primera for four years. But they picked up only four points in eight games, the total winless run stretching back 16 matches, and he was sacked. Last night Catalan admitted that he didn’t know if that had been a mistake; at the time there was a feeling that something profound had broken, and things didn’t improve. Under Javier Pereira, largely unknown and arriving from China to take his first job in Spain, things didn’t improve: they collected three points from seven games.
When Lisci, promoted from the B team and the youngest manager in the first division, led Levante to victory over Mallorca in January, it was their first win in 273 days. Twenty-seven games was the longest winless run in Spanish history. The season was 20 weeks in, all those points irrecoverable now. “In the first half of the season we didn’t compete,” Lisci said. Under him, Levante collected 22 points from 21 games: just about enough extrapolated over a whole season but not half of one. Levante were always playing catch-up and never really could, survival within sight but not truly within reach. “We’re the ones to blame: we’re the ones that went 27 without winning, the ones who reacted too late,” Morales said.
Asked whether he could explain relegation Postigo replied: “Yes: what we did last season [when Levante didn’t win any of their last eight games] was contagious. We went weeks without winning and that weighed upon us. We didn’t have the maturity to turn it around, that millstone was too big. It’s hard to win so many consecutive games in primera. We’re bottom and haven’t been close to fighting until these final weeks. The team reacted, but very late. We’ve done a decent second half but it’s not enough.”
They hadn’t been relegated in the Bernabéu; the surprise maybe was that they had got that far still standing, not how quickly and completely they crumbled against the best team there is. “This side has gone a very long time with an incredible mental fatigue,” Lisci said. “You play life or death all that time, with all that tension, and the second goal overwhelms everyone.”
Levante will be missed; it’s been fun. This is the team that beat Atlético away and drew 2-2 with them at home, that drew 3-3 with Madrid, lost 3-2 to Barcelona and Sevilla, 4-3 to Valencia and Espanyol, 4-2 to Betis and 5-3 to Sevilla; that last year lost 4-2 to Valencia, drew 3-3 with Barcelona, beat Betis 4-3 and twice defeated the champions. This time, when it came to the last chance, they couldn’t. And so it ends, which it had almost from the start. There are just two games left; finally released, maybe now they can just play, appreciate what they had these five years. “Let’s not waste a single minute left in primera because who knows if we will tread this ground again one day,” Morales said.
• This article was amended on 14 May 2022. Levante’s next game was against Alavés, not Cádiz as stated in an earlier version.