Few managers have had such an impact this season – in a matter of weeks Paco López has turned Levante from relegation certainties to one of La Liga’s hottest properties
When Levante’s captain Jose Luis Morales began sprinting down the San Mamés’ left wing, a tremendous 60 metres away from Kepa’s goal, no team-mate jumped in on the break.
He was on his own. He ran, dribbled, got into the box, was a bit lucky with the rebound and calmly finished over the desperate attempt of the goalie to block the shot. That was the 1-3 strike against Athletic Bilbao. Cue madness on the away bench with players hugging and celebrating with a bald, tiny figure who became emotional with such a huge win away.
Paco López is his name. A relative unknown. The fact is no other manager this season, apart from Abelardo in Mendizorroza, has managed to pull off such a tough stunt in times of need. In Alaves’ case, the new manager came around in Weekday 12. In Levante’s case, Lopez’s time window was much tighter: only eleven games to prove that he could steer the boat out of danger.
When he took the reins, the Granotas only had 21 points after 27 games and sat 17th in the standings.
And, to date, 90% of the job is done. Even fans are speechless.
The stats for Levante under this humble, veteran coach are absolutely bonkers. Since he came on board, Levante have won five, drawn once and only lost in their away game at the Wanda Metropolitano -16 points out of 21.
Another way to put it: over the last two months, Levante are the second best team in LaLiga., slightly behind Real Betis and besting Champions League teams such as Barça, Real Madrid or Atlético.
¡El equipo entrena en el Ciutat de València con un gran ambiente! #RécordValenciano #LigaIberdrola pic.twitter.com/RcTrFUTZTl
— Levante UD Femenino (@LUDfemenino) April 25, 2018
Winning against Sevilla this week could seal the deal for the Levantinistas. Even a draw or losing, as long as Deportivo mimic the same outcome in their game, would be enough to mathematically confirm their stay in LaLiga one more season, three games before the campaign ends. Not bad for a debutante in his first LaLiga venture, right?
The story of this 51-year-old coach is linked to the good old days in the sandy, dusty, humble grounds of the Spanish third and fourth division. He began training 15-years-ago, once he retired as a striker who had played both for Valencia’s youth team and also in Levante’s first team. He coached some well-known feeder teams in the Valencian region before signing for Levante’s B team in summer 2017.
At that point, matters were running smoothly inside the club after a spectacular season in La Segunda that had enabled Levante to bounce back from their relegation from 2015-2016. Under Juan Ramón López Muñíz, the Granotas put together a super-team to win promotion, and they did it in an incredibly convincing way. With Muñíz as the captain of the ship, this year began quite them for them… until, mid-October, when the season began going south.
¡Comenzamos a preparar el #LevanteSevilla! pic.twitter.com/FoKlhw9l2J
— Levante UD ? (@LevanteUD) April 25, 2018
After one of the worst runs the fans remember in many years (only a single victory between November and March 4th, the day Muñíz was sacked), the board turned to Lopez’s expertise and background to leave aside his fight to promote Levante Atlético and focus his efforts in putting the first team back in shape. And he has exceeded expectations with a combination of humbleness, psychological work with key players and an attractive playing style which peaked against Atlético.
The new manager soon gained trust from the locker room, talked Jose Campaña into believing once again he was the much-needed mastermind in the midfield the team had enjoyed in Segunda, gave Jose Luis Morales the confidence and weight to behave as the line-up’s captain on and off the pitch, worked hard on youngster Ennis Bardhi’s mentality… It was a tough job, but he has done it in a seemingly effortless fashion.
Against Athletic Club, Bardhi scored twice with two rocketing free-kicks that reminded fans of that player who shone in the first few games of the season. All the team has committed to defending and generating chances, instead of fighting amongst themselves. Hope and excitement have finally returned to the Ciutat de Valencia stadium. And, regardless of getting the job done versus Sevilla or further along the road, remaining in LaLiga should be more than enough to extend Paco López’s contract. He’s possibly the guy who most deserves it.