Adrián Cordero Vega finished it a second too early and not too soon. The clock read 89.59 when the referee blew, but it was over almost from the start, and not just last night. Levante had one goal less after 12:42 at the Bernabéu; they were down-on the ground too, no longer able to resist the inevitable, the fate they had fought. “We’ve been given for dead many times, but we keep getting back up,” said Alessio Lisci, their third manager this season and the only one to win a game, but it was a resurrection from too far. Now they just wanted it to be over, nothing left to give. “The players suffered the unspeakable,” said their president when it was finally the case, relegation confirmed long after it was known.
Six days earlier, Alessio said he had “almost had a heart attack” when Gonzalo Melero’s last-minute penalty gave Levante a lifeline with a 2-1 win over Real Sociedad. A fortnight earlier, José Luis Morales, the captain, had broken down when he missed one of his own which would have equalized against Sevilla, but on both sides 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 it was 3-2 against Sevilla and Barcelona, via a 92nd-minute goal from Luuk de Jong.
All of this meant that they arrived at the Bernabéu knowing that if they could beat Real Madrid, they could still survive. After all, their next game would be against Cadiz, an opportunity against the team they had to grab, and their last game was against Rayo Vallecano, who had nothing left to play. They had won twice in three years at the Bernabéu and Madrid were already champions. They would be given a guard of honor, which might soften them. And Madrid could even rotate. Even a draw would give Levante a small chance, allowing them to fight another day. No, it wasn’t likely, but it was something to cling to – a hot nail, as the Inquisition-inspired idiom goes.
“We knew what Cadiz had done [losing 3-0 at Real Sociedad] and we knew if we could win here we could get closer, but we just didn’t. Madrid knocked us down after the first goal,” Sergio Postigo said afterwards. Ferland Mendy ran free to score after 12 minutes. “It hurt us a lot; you start thinking about things you don’t want to think about…and then you succumb,” Morales admitted. If that wasn’t 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 scored three in 33 minutes and Vinícius Júnior netted the fourth just before half-time. Three times Madrid had also hit the post.
High in the northeast corner, around 400 Levante fans kept singing. 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, but forced to stand there, taking the hits, barely able to protect themselves. Goalkeeper Dani Cárdenas, seen up close, was a particularly tough watch. The ball in his net, he sat and stared into space, broken. He made saves – a lot – but was still a picture of helplessness, kicking the post, wobbling as he stood alone, spasming in anger and frustration. It was like he was desperately trying to scream it all out, to shake it out of his body, but it wouldn’t leave him and he couldn’t leave here. At halftime, despite being the furthest away, he was the first in the tunnel, just wanting to get out and fast.
They had all felt more or less the same thing, it became a suffering, an act of penance. It was over at 12:42, but Madrid kept coming, eventually landing nearly 30 shots. For Levante, there were over 77 minutes to endure, watching their own slow and inevitable descent into the second division, as they had done all season. For Vinícius, it was time to take advantage. When asked if he wanted to retire and rest in the second half, the Brazilian said no: he had a hat-trick to do, which he did. Benzema tricked Cárdenas into installing one. ‘Madrid dances on Levante’s grave,’ said the AS title. “It’s a sad day for Levante. The best way to respect an opponent is to give their best,” Carlos Ancelotti said.
It 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 empathy, ended it early, an act of mercy. After five years, a moment of pleasure in will take precedence, Levante was down and down, two weeks earlier. On the bench, Morales hid in the shadows, shirt over his face, crying. Francisco Son was sobbing. Rúben Vezo came to comfort his teammates, a tear of himself visible on his cheek. “All I can say is sorry,” the captain said when he finally got to say a few words. “It’s terribly, terribly difficult. We weren’t good enough.
Perhaps the most striking words were the simplest of all. A reporter had presumably miscalculated the standings – Levante can still tie Cadiz on points, but they lost the head-to-head record – and asked Lisci how he was going to motivate his players for the near-impossible final push. The coach paused for a moment, hesitating, as if unsure 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 manager in his first job trying to sort out a problem that was not his fault. It was “cruel, but that’s the way it is,” Postigo said, “we weren’t worthy of this division.” “A culmination of mistakes,” said president Quico Catalan, putting his own position in the hands of the club’s owning foundation. Financially, they face a €10m shortfall, signings have had almost no impact, the sporting director has been sacked and they have gone through three coaches.
The first of them, Paco López, is Levante: The former B-team player and coach took over in 2018 and won eight of 11 to save them, then comfortably kept them will take precedence For four years. But they had just four points in eight games, the total winless streak going back 16 games, and he was sacked. Last night, Catalan admitted he didn’t know if it was a mistake. At the time, it felt like something deep had snapped and things weren’t getting better. Under Javier Pereira, largely unknown and arrived from China to take his first job in Spain, things have not improved: they have 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 against Mallorca in January, it was his first victory in 273 days. Twenty-seven games were the longest winless streak in Spanish history. The season was 20 weeks, all those points unrecoverable now. “In the first half of the season we didn’t compete,” Lisci said. Under him, Levante collected 22 points in 21 games: about enough extrapolated over a whole season but not half of one. Levante always played catch-up and never really could, survival within sight but not quite within reach. “We are the only ones to blame: we are the ones who went 27 without winning, those who reacted too late,” Morales said.
When asked if he could explain the 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 it weighed on us. We didn’t have the maturity to turn things around, this wheel was too big. It is difficult to win so many consecutive matches in will take precedence. We’re down and haven’t come close to a fight until the last few weeks. The team reacted, but very late. We had a good second half but it’s not enough.
They had not been relegated to the Bernabéu; the surprise was maybe they got this far still standing, not how fast and completely they fell apart against the best team there was. “This team has gone through a very long time with incredible mental fatigue,” Lisci said. “You’ve been playing life or death all this time, with all this tension, and the second goal overwhelms everyone.”
Levante will be missed; It was funny. This is the team that beat Atlético away and drew 2-2 with them at home, drew 3-3 with Madrid, lost 3-2 to Barcelona and Sevilla, 4-3 against Valencia and Espanyol, 4-2 against Betis and 5-3 in Sevilla; that last year lost 4-2 to Valencia, drew 3-3 with Barcelona, beat Betis 4-3 and beat the champions twice. This time, when it was the last chance, they couldn’t. And that’s how it ends, which it had almost from the start. There are only two games left; finally out, maybe now they can just play, enjoy what they’ve had for five years. “Let’s not waste a single minute in will take precedence because who knows if we will tread this ground again one day,” Morales said.