Juan Ignacio Martínez is the architect of Levante UD's surprise start to the Liga campaign which has the team with one of the smallest budgets in Spain's top flight ahead of Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona.
Sunday's 3-0 win at Villarreal CF made Levante – still undefeated after eight games – the outright Liga leaders, a point clear of a Madrid side they have already beaten and two above Barcelona. The 37-year-old coach who is directing this unlikely charge offered his thoughts to UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: Who would have thought Levante would be rubbing shoulders with Barcelona and Madrid?
Juan Ignacio Martínez: Let's honest: none of us imagined it, not even in our wildest dreams. We have been trying to win as many points as possible but this run we have been on has been great. We realise it's a long season, with difficult times ahead, so we are just looking to enjoy the moment.
UEFA.com: Levante struggled last season, avoiding relegation by two points, and seemed a team with one star, Felipe Caicedo. He then left yet the team have responded magnificently. What is the reason?
Martínez: There are many. I am new to the club but have come to realise two hugely important things: the level of commitment in the dressing room and the absolute confidence of the fans in this squad. This club is a family. The reception the fans give us when we play at home and the fact they wait for hours for the team bus to arrive at the stadium is something else. There is a really beautiful atmosphere which I hope lasts for the entire campaign.
UEFA.com: With players like Sergio Ballesteros, Nano, Javi Venta, Asier Del Horno, José Barkero and Valdo, Levante are not short of experience either.
Martínez: In difficult moments in games, experience plays an important part. These are players with many games under their belts which makes them battle-hardened in the top division and that is vital. There is a feeling at the club that this is helping us in our performances.
UEFA.com: Your 36-year-old defender Ballesteros has become an idol at the club, a symbol of the team.
Martínez: He is the flagship. He came here [in 2008] at a tricky moment for the club after relegation, having also emerged through the ranks here earlier in his career. His contribution is exceptional. He is the first to arrive in the dressing room and the last to leave. He is not a big talker but in his behaviour and performances he leads the group.
UEFA.com: Did you expect to be so difficult to beat?
Martínez: We had an intense and highly competitive pre-season. We played teams like Uruguay's Peñarol – who took part in the Copa Libertadores final – Parma and Bolton Wanderers. From there we began to be a tough, serious team but, that said, we still would not have imagined a situation like this. The strengths we have developed help a lot with the players' confidence.
UEFA.com: The 1-0 home win against Madrid on 18 September – was that the moment your side really began to believe in themselves?
Martínez: That is a hard one to analyse. We should have started the season against Real Zaragoza but because of the players' strike we had to play twice away from home in Getafe and Santander. After that, our first home game was Madrid. Now that we have all these points we are thrilled but you would never have thought we would be in such great shape. The good thing was that after the Madrid match we had to play Rayo Vallecano on the Wednesday so there was no time to think about the situation.
UEFA.com: The players have said they were surprised to find in your first training sessions that you liked to pass the ball around. Do you consider yourself something of a purist?
Martínez: Together with the rest of my coaching staff, I am always thinking about how to use the ball, including when it comes to the game. But we have to take things step by step while looking at what each player is giving us. There is nothing more pleasurable than watching a player enjoy himself in training.
UEFA.com: As a coach you have worked your way up every level of Spanish football. Did you expect to scale these heights?
Martínez: Football was always something vocational for me. A friend reminded me the other day that when I was a child I was already putting together teams and collecting photos. What I really wanted was to be a player and the furthest I got was the third division. After that I started training youngsters in youth teams in the 1990s. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing how I have risen but I never presumed I'd make it – that came about by chance, with some luck along the way.
UEFA.com: Where do you see Levante come May?
Martínez: We have taken a giant leap but we must still look to go one step at a time. We are well placed in October but I know it is going to be difficult to get the points needed for top-flight survival. We are going to suffer. I hope that come May we are living a dream, but we have to keep our feet on the ground. Now we have only one objective which is to get to Christmas intact. Let's see if we get there with a significant amount of points.
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