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FC Barcelona's Next La Liga Opponent: Jornada 4 – Levante UD Scouting Report & Key Battles

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Hello and welcome to the scouting report and key battles weekly column! This week’s edition of Ahmed’s analysis will take a closer look at Levante’s transfers, form, strategy, a few things you (probably) didn't know about the club, predicted line-up and key battles.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

Diego Simeone, coach of reigning La Liga champions Atlético Madrid, was in typically sharp and witty form in recent weeks about fellow rivals Real Madrid: "With €95 million we have signed nine players," Simeone said. "Real Madrid have signed two players for over €95 million. That is the difference." A further €10 million was spent on goalkeeper Keylor Navas and FC Barcelona spent over €155 million. He had a point, but others have even more of a case.

The spending levels of La Liga’s ‘big two’ was expected for different reasons and could not have been surprising. Atletico Madrid’s overachievement had predictable repercussions, with top scorer Diego Costa, left-back Filipe Luís and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois all leaving for Chelsea. Simeone did at least have the resources to replace these players with internationals such as Mario Mandzukic, Antoine Griezmann and Alessio Cerci. One could rightly or wrongly argue that Atletico Madrid are stronger this season than they were last. It is therefore the other 17 La Liga clubs who have a real cause for concern.

As most will know the money from the current TV deal in Spain is largely set aside for two teams. In the Premier League, the split between clubs is fairly even. In La Liga, Barcelona and Real Madrid are being given roughly €140 million a year. Atletico Madrid receive about €42 million whilst the other sides receive a lowly €14 million.

Dermot Corrigan of When Saturday Comes writes: "Meanwhile La Liga's other 17 clubs presumably had little time for "El Cholo" pleading poverty. Once again this summer the best players at the "smaller" clubs have been picked off, including Athletic Bilbao (Ander Herrera), Sevilla (Rakitic), Levante (Costa Rican keeper Navas) and Real Sociedad (Griezmann). Various issues – mostly financial – meant that none of these clubs have spent big on replacements. The other 17 between them have spent only about the price of one Suárez, with the vast majority of deals being either loans or free transfers."

The Spanish league president Javier Tebas has recently stated that Real Madrid and Barcelona’s TV revenue will be limited under a new Spanish law.  The teams with a combined annual income of  €1 billion won’t be able to receive more than four times as much broadcast income as the smallest of the 20 clubs in La Liga under the legislation.


The league has held talks with the government about amendments to the Sports Law that are scheduled to be approved this year and take effect in 2015, according to a government official. Real Madrid and Barcelona’s broadcast income will remain the same for "a few years" under the new law as other clubs catch up, according to Atletico Madrid Chief Executive Officer Miguel Angel Gil. Something similar has recently been introduced in Serie A to share Juventus’ financial advantage.

Some have argued for La Liga to make the split more evenly, something similar to the EPL, Serie A or the Bundesliga. Others have argued for more drastic changes, NBA style rules where all broadcast contracts are negotiated centrally, revenues are shared, there are caps and "luxury taxes" on payrolls.


It must be said that it is unclear whether the president’s statement will cement into practice, but if true, it is certainly a step in the right direction since it has certainly contributed to causing Spanish football clubs a whole host of problems, not least to Levante (nicknamed Les Granotes, The Frogs). Levante’s story is a long, sad and spiriting one. In many ways it is a microcosm of the major problems facing all of Spanish football.

With the smallest budget in the top flight at the time (€17m) they were forced to pick off the scraps with loans and free transfers. Their top earner made only €350,000 a year and their coach couldn't switch on the ProZone because it costs
too much. "Segunda sides pay players twice what we can," admits the sporting director, Manolo Salvador. "Agents run away when they hear what we offer."

What they used to offer was an average wage of €300,000 per year and no transfer fee – in three years they didn’t pay a euro. "We have to wait until the end and see who's left, which players can't get a club," says Salvador. Even now, they’ve sold Keylor Navas for £8.80 million, yet have only been able to spend £440.000 on a direct replacement and an additional £264.000 elsewhere. Levante UD and Valencia CF are the only clubs in the league without a main kit sponsor at the moment.

Levante’s president Quico Catalán unsurprisingly made good use of Spain’s insolvency laws, which allows clubs to avoid paying creditors and keep playing matches, and worked at cutting costs and improving processes behind the scenes. Dave Redshaw of Football Espana writes: "According to economist David Bartolome Martinez, who has conducted an extensive study of Levante’s finances, existing policy is that from every transfer made around €800,000 goes directly to the club, while the rest is used to pay off debt. This means the budget is under strict control and no unnecessary expenditure is undertaken without proper justification."

It is a philosophy Quico Catalán outlined before the start of the 2013-14 season: "We must be clear, however, that any growth must be consistent with our obligations and commitments. This club cannot forget it generates the income it generates and has a very important burden of debt that has to take care of every year. So far we have met our responsibilities. In football, as well as in life, if you try to fly and don’t have your wings ready then you must be prepared to crash."

Even though there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not just financially that Les Granotes are struggling. Levante are in all sorts of trouble with the brilliant Keylor Navas and experienced coach Joaquín Caparrós departing. What a mistake letting go of Caparrós is proving to be. He led them to a super respectable 10th placed finish in La Liga last season, with highlights being wins over the La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, the Europa League champions Sevilla and arguably the highlight of highlights, a win over local rivals Valencia.

It’s early days, but Caparros left for an-on-paper much weaker Granada who only just escaped relegation last season and is at this early stage 6th with them in the La Liga standings, while Levante are ominously already in last position. How Levante must be regretting their decision to not truly do their outmost to extend Caparros’ contract.

This type inequality is all over most of Spanish football and needs to be addressed. The pretty dismal financial state of much of Spanish football has been underlined yet again with Real Murcia demoted to the third tier of the league due to owing €13 million in tax arrears.
It’s a huge fall from grace for Murcia, who finished fourth in the second division last season before being beaten in the promotion playoffs by Cordoba.

The punishment being dished out doesn’t just stop at relegation. Since Segunda B is split into 4 regional groups, Real Murcia will have to occupy the place of Mirandés (the team promoted in Real’s place) in group 1, which geographically is in the opposite corner of the country. Real’s nearest rival is around 500 kilometres away. There is also a €180,000 fine to pay. It’s unfair to say the least. Financial problems and an inept owner is one thing, but Real Murcia expected more from the LFP.

Guiri Seymour Koeman of a Real Murcia blog writes: "The individual case of Real Murcia bears little scrutiny. Tebas (LFP president) and Samper (Murcia owner) are sworn enemies for more than a decade. It seems that Tebas considered this summer the perfect opportunity of take Samper down (Real Murcia being the unfortunate victim). Samper’s infamous timing giving Tebas what seemed the appropriate situation. Paperwork wasn’t in order, and no agreement on debt payment had been reached with Hacienda (Spain’s Inland Revenue). The various commissions and arbitrators (all part of the Liga’s own justice system) condemned Real Murcia to Segunda B on August 7, just 16 days before the season was to begin."

Many Spanish clubs are suffering serious economic problems and Tebas said: "The important thing is to protect the integrity of the competition and try to make clubs as equal as possible in financial terms. The clubs want everyone to pay their players, pay their taxes, social security, their suppliers and their debts."

Aritz Gabilondo of AS went as far as to tweet: "How do you explain to a child in Murcia that their team is relegated because of those that rule the game? We are moving towards a simple choice between Madrid and Barcelona".

This brings us to Javier Tebas, the LFP president highly criticised for his stance on several issues, including senseless kick-off times, distribution of broadcasting rights, irregular betting activity, questionable Spanish laws defuncting and relegating teams for financial irregularities, corruption, third party ownership, poor attendance and ticket prices. In general, Tebas seems to talk the talk but not walk the walk and many have become disillusioned as a result. La Liga is arguably the best league in world football but it is not perfect by any means.

The large number of clubs in Spanish football currently in administration is vast. Something certainly needs to be done. Yes, it happens in most countries and they are not particularly well-known (we have to remember that there is a story behind every name), but below is a list of some of the defunct clubs (mostly due to financial problems) in Spanish football:

Atlético Ciudad
Caravaca
Ciudad de Santiago
Cobeña
Eibar B
Extremadura
FC Barcelona C
Granada 74
Jumilla
Logroñés
Polideportivo Ejido

San Fernando
Sporting Mahonés
UD Salamanca
Universidad de Las Palmas
Villanueva


The list is by no means exhaustive. It could have gone on and on. George Orwell was perhaps the Spanish Civil War’s most famous warrior, and one of his most well-known saying rings true in Spanish football’s economic front line where it seems all clubs are equal in the eyes of the authorities, but some are more equal than others.

Transfers

Levante’s summer transfer activity can only be described as underwhelming. They have invested in
Jesús Fernández from Real Madrid for £440.000 and this is a good acquisition considering the price, but needless to say, he is nowhere near the standard of Jesus Navas. Yet as per the financial restrictions Levante have, as stated above, the management’s hands were tied in that the transfer fund just not being available. Toño from Recreativo Huelva for £264.000 represents the only other money spent on an acquisition.

They signed squad players Jaime Gavilán and Rafael Martins on a free from Getafe CF and Audax, respectively. Víctor Pérez and Diego Mariño have both been loaned from Real Valladolid in the Segunda Division.

Iván López has now returned to the Segunda Division and José Luis Morales to Eibar after the end of their loan spells. Keylor Navas is the big departure in leaving to Real Madrid for £8.80 million, but for that price and considering the team he left for, it was a no brainer. Javi Jiménez and Roger have been loaned out to the Segunda Division in order to get further experience.

Nagore
and Pedro Ríos have left on a free transfer to the Segunda Division. Miguel Pallardó has left on a free to the Scottish Championship and centre-forward Ángel Rodríguez has left for Eibar. Sérgio da Silva Pinto and Aloys Nong also left on a free, but are at the moment unemployed. Babá has returned to Sevilla FC after his loan ended.

Form

Levante’s pre-season was poor with them only winning one game out of five. Levante’s competitive season so far has been nothing short of catastrophic. They lost to Villarreal and then went on to lose 3-0 to Athletic Bilbao. They were able to clinch a 0-0 draw with Malaga largely thanks to goalkeeping heroics from Jesus in a match where Malaga had 8 shots on targets and 20 corners compared to Levante’s 0 and 1 respectively.

Strategy

Levante's main shape is based around a 4-2-3-1 formation. Without possession this usually ends up being a 4-5-1 shape as the attacking midfielders often drop deeper in line with the holding midfielders.

Levante play a very counter attacking style, reliant on a very compact low block in defence and quick transition and good movement from the front four. They try to move the ball forward but with no success so far this season and they sacrifice possession in most matches.  

In recent years, they have been very difficult to break open and they will continue to be so, however, they have since weakened considerably with teams working out how to play against them, as well as some high-profile departures.

A Few Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Levante UD

Wikipedia writes: "Levante UD was originally founded in 1909 as Levante Fútbol Club, taking their name from the "Levante" beach in La Malvarrosa, and was one of the pioneering football clubs in Valencia. During the civil war Levante's ground was destroyed, but the club's squad remained intact. In contrast, Gimnástico had a ground, Estadio de Vallejo, but had lost most of their players. As a result, the two clubs merged in 1939 to become Unión Deportiva Levante-Gimnástico, changing two years later to Levante Unión Deportiva, which club colours in the 2000s dated from this era (the blaugrana home colours were originally those of Gimnástico, whilst the black and white away kit, was also used by Levante FC in the beginning)."

Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff played half a season for the club, retiring three years later.

Juan Gisbert of Total Football writes: "As a consequence of the bigger economic power of Valencia CF, the club was able to reach higher achievements in its history and, as a result, they were also able to gather the support of the majority of the city, the province and part of the region. On the other hand, being a Levante UD fan was a matter of pride. The pride of the forgotten areas near the sea."


He continues: "Nowadays, both clubs struggle economically, but there is an important difference. The crisis of Valencia is solved with the transfer of super-stars and a big dose of patience, but still keeping their elite status in the Spanish football. However, Levante UD belong to the extensive humble class of the Spanish football. The club has been under administration during the last decade, until their young and talented president Quico Catalán has been able to impose a rational economic structure while building a team with players that are in the last part of their careers, but still willing to show something."

Predicted Line-up

With Juanfran, David Navarro, Ivan Lopez, Issam El Adoua, Nikos Karabelas, Jaime Gavilan and Rafael Martins all possibly injured or at the very least not fully-fit, head coach Jose Luis Mendilibar will have a rather limited squad at his disposal.

Jesus will start in goal. His goal was absolutely peppered by Malaga but he still managed to keep a clean sheet.

Pedro Lopez will start as the right-back, unless José Luis Mendilibar decides to go extra defensive and play him as a right-winger. It looks like first choice centre-backs David Navarro, Juanfran and Issam El Adoua won’t make it since they are struggling with injuries. Even though their expected return is to be established on a day-to-day basis, they haven’t trained for a long time and are therefore not expected to start. It would be a massive boost of one of the three does start. In their absence, I would expect Loukas Vyntra and Viktor Camarasa to start, as they did in the last match against Malaga. 1.9 m defender (and Levante-man through and through) young centre-back Hector Rodas is also a possibility. Toño could start in the left-back position with Nikos Karabelas still out and not training.

A central midfield pairing consisting of Simao Mate and Mohamed Sissoko is very likely to be deployed. It looks like Jordi Xumetra will start as a right-winger and either Jose Luis Morales or Andreas Ivanschitz look set to start as a left-winger. Victor Perez should start as the attacking midfielder. The pacy Nabil El Zhar is always an option.

With Rafael Martins injured until Mid October 2014, David Barral, Victor
Casadesús and El Zhar are options to start as the lone striker.

Possible XI (4-2-3-1): Jesus Fernandez ; Pedro Lopez, Vyntra, Camarasa, Toño; Simao, Sissoko; Xumetra, Victor Perez, Morales; Barral

Key Battles

With the uncertainty over the predicted line-ups, as well as the fact that the individual battles will most certainly be a no contest, this week will focus on team battles.

Ability to break down v A compact defense: This is the battle which is usually key in this sort of matches. The attack usually either scores an early goal and then a few more, or does the opposite and struggles to even score one. There is no doubt that Barcelona will attack in numbers while Levante will defend in numbers. Whilst Levante are not quite as good as they were last season, they will take heart from the 1-1 draw at Estadi Ciutat de València in January. Further to this, Levante have already made it difficult vs Villarreal and Malaga this season. Expect Barcelona’s quality to shine through though.

Set-pieces v Set-pieces: Barcelona have in recent years struggled at set-pieces and Levante struggled badly at set-pieces v Athletic Bilbao a couple of game weeks away. This could therefore be an important deciding factor.

Complacency v Hunger:
If Barcelona are complacent then they will struggle. Granted there were a lot of players rested and rotation against APOEL, but it was all a bit too comfortable. Barcelona should be hungry to continue their great start to the season and Levante should too after their poor start.

Final Thoughts


Levante are unfortunately at the moment only going in one direction, and that’s down. They are an early-season relegation candidate but there is the hope that they will improve. Their seemingly only saving grace is that they can rely on being difficult to beat at home against even the best of teams, but especially against their fellow relegation rivals. Barcelona haven't lost at Levante since the 1964-65 season, so that bodes well for -La Blaugrana.

Further to this, Levante are the only team in the league not to score so far and Barcelona should be able to win this one by a goal or two and possibly even more if the floodgates open, especially considering the extent of Levante’s injury problems.

I respect the fact that Levante are a club who have been a breath of fresh air for years now in La Liga, even more so considering they were very recently on the brink of bankruptcy. I therefore wish them the best of luck for the season ahead.

Thank you for reading, take care and goodbye until next time!