It’s been a season of mixed fortunes for Levante UD, in which remarkable triumphs over both Barcelona and Real Madrid either side of the new year stand in stark contrast to their rather unremarkable league position. The Valencians currently sit 14th, two points ahead of Asier Garitano’s resurgent Alavés and level on goal difference with Real Betis.
Victories over the big two can impart a rosy glow over even the most average of La Liga campaigns, which could well be the case with this Levante side come the end of the season. Paco López’s team have lost 14 games out of 27 in La Liga, and as the manager quite rightly pointed out on Sunday, goalkeeper Aitor Fernández has been fundamental in terms of keeping the Granotas’ heads above water.
Fernández has been the outstanding performer for Levante throughout the season. He has made 126 saves in 27 games for the club – more than any other goalkeeper since the campaign began in August. On Sunday, the Basque once again looked like a commanding figure in a team that has on numerous occasions struggled to assert any kind of dominance over the opposition.
Levante’s season could well be summed up by their performance at the weekend. Despite going 1-0 up thanks to a Roger Martí goal on 11 minutes, the Valencians spent the rest of the game offering next to nothing in attack, and would lose their lead on the hour mark when Darwin Machís rounded the keeper to equalise for Granada. The visitors looked dangerous every time they went forward; a spectacular double save from Fernández prevented a Carlos Neva equaliser before half time, and he was once again called upon to keep out strikes from Maxime Gonalons and Roberto Soldado in the second half which would have undoubtedly put the game beyond the hosts. In his post-match press conference, head coach Paco López heaped praise on his goalkeeper. “You have to say that Aitor won us that point today.”
Fernández’s recent performances have earned him a place on the shortlist for the Spain squad ahead of the international break at the end of this month. While he admits that talk of being called up to play for La Roja excites him, Fernández seems extremely grounded. His humility is a virtue that one could easily attribute to the typically reserved Basque character, but which is more likely a result of the long and rather unspectacular path that he has taken to get to where he is now. It has, after all, been quite a journey for the 28-year-old, who in just four years has made the transition from Segunda B to become one of the most talked-about goalkeepers in the top division of Spanish football.
When questioned about the possibility of being selected for the national side, the Gipuzkoan is quick to remind everyone that he remains relatively inexperienced at the top level. “I wasn’t even starting games a year and a half ago, two years ago I was playing in the Segunda and four years ago I was in the Segunda B,” he said in an interview with Valencian sports publication Superdeporte last week.
Fernández may be right in implying that the next international break could be a little soon for his inclusion in the Spanish squad – especially with Athletic Club’s Unai Simón also knocking at the door. However, the fact that his inclusion in the squad is even being discussed at the moment speaks volumes for the kind of season that he’s having. At 28 – still relatively young in goalkeeping terms – Fernández will undoubtedly be one to watch over the next few years.