Levante bring breath of fresh air to La Liga
The blue and claret shirts of the current La Liga leaders have a familiar look about them but, rather than belonging to Spanish giants Barcelona - champions for the last three seasons - the apparel is that of modest Levante.
With seven wins and two draws, the Valencia-based side are one point ahead of Real Madrid - having inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Jose Mourinho's men at home last month - and another point clear of third-placed Barca.
Shock and surprise are just two of the words that have been regularly used in the last week at this unprecedented state of affairs, with Levante topping La Liga for the first time in their 102-year history.
How did they get there? Where have they come from? And can they stay there?
Not a galactico in sight, but Levante have lit up La Liga this season. Photo: Getty
Levante have built their success on an unlikely combination of factors.
Firstly, few people expected the new coach Juan Ignacio Martinez to be a miracle worker.
The 47-year-old, described in one pre-season guide as a "globe trotter around the Mediterranean", with a CV that mainly included lower league clubs on the coast, had never before coached in the Spanish first division.
However, he has managed to create a never-say-die team spirit within his motley collection of journeymen professionals.
Arguably the biggest name in his squad is the 33-year-old former Inter Milan midfielder Francisco Farinos, who earned a couple of Spanish caps over a decade ago.
"What this team has achieved seems impossible. At the start of the season all that I was looking for was to avoid relegation" said Martinez on Monday, seemingly unable to comprehend his team's place at the top of the league.
"It's very easy to look at the table when you are first," added the Levante captain Sergio Ballesteros, who admitted that there had been times in previous seasons when he couldn't bring himself to open a newspaper on Monday mornings.
Never before in Levante's chequered league history, whether the club has been in the first or fourth tier of Spanish football, had they strung together six consecutive wins, let alone the seventh they notched up against Real Sociedad on Wednesday.
That 3-2 victory also made Martinez only the second La Liga novice coach to put together such a winning streak.
In addition to Martinez's influence, nearly every player has also been performing far beyond his expected ability.
Uruguay goalkeeper Gustavo Munua has been in outstanding form, at least until they faced Real Sociedad, when things didn't go quite so well and it required a Ruben goal three minutes into injury time to maintain their pole position.
Ivory Coast international Kone, the scorer against Real, has been revitalised since joining Levante on loan, as part of a house-clearing exercise by Sevilla during the summer.
Sevilla club president Jose Maria del Nido hailed Kone as "one of the best strikers in the world" when he arrived from PSV Eindhoven in 2007 for 12m euros.
But he never settled, his form fell apart, his confidence tumbled and he was also bedevilled by injuries.
In four years at Sevilla, he scored just one league goal. At Levante, he has already found the net three times in nine games.
In addition his goals, Kone has also been creating opportunities every game for his colleagues to capitalise on.
Manager Juan Ignacio Martinez has fostered a never-say-die team spirit. Photo: Getty
Levante's current situation is all the more remarkable as they were on the brink of bankruptcy barely three years.
Astonishing mismanagement saw the club owing around 18m euros to creditors, and players went through almost all of the 2007-08 season without being paid. The financial crisis at the club was one of the main incidents behind the La Liga players' strike at the start of this season.
After substantial help from local councils - their shirts bear the words "Comunitat Valenciana" with the regional government as a sponsor - and many debts being written off, the club is still run on a shoestring.
After two seasons in the second division, Levante finished 14th on their return to the top flight, which most people considered a major feat. At the start of the season, they were many peoples' tip for relegation.
To be fair, not a single well-known pundit has put his or her neck on the line and said that they expect Levante still to be on top in May. They have yet to face any of the four clubs behind them - Real Madrid, Barcelona, local rivals Valencia and Sevilla - away from home and they have only played host to Real so far.
Nevertheless, their appearance at the top of the table has captured the imagination of the public and the media.
"A wind has blown through La Liga and it's called Levante," said the daily sports newspaper Marca on Monday.
It remains to be seen whether this is a wind that will blow itself out shortly but for the moment it has certainly provided a welcome breath of fresh air.