Leganes looks to extend surprising run in Copa del Rey

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2018 file photo, Leganes' players celebrate their victory against Real Madrid at the end of the Spanish Copa del Rey quarterfinal second leg soccer match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain. The team everyone is talking about now is Leganes, the modest club based just south of the capital. It spent a decade in the third tier, from 2004-2014, before making the run that took the club to the first division in 2016. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

MADRID — It's been historically hard to name the third best soccer team in Madrid.

No team has been able to achieve or sustain at least a smidgen of the success of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

The other teams from the capital, or its nearby suburbs, have come and gone in the first division. A few have thrived in the Copa del Rey. But through the years there has never been a clear answer to which one can be considered the city's third power.

The latest side to have a go is Leganes, based just south of the capital.

On Wednesday, Leganes has a chance to advance to the Copa del Rey final for the first time in its 89-year history. It plays at Sevilla in the second leg of the semifinals. The first leg finished 1-1.

"They are used to playing finals and to winning," Leganes coach Asier Garitano said. "We are not used to being in this position. We will find out what we are capable of. It will be a great experience to see if we are prepared to win."

Beating Sevilla won't be easy, but not impossible either, considering Leganes reversed a 1-0 first-leg loss against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. It stunned Madrid 2-1 at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium to keep alive its impressive run. It eliminated Villarreal in the previous round.

Leganes had never made it to the Copa quarterfinals until this year. It is playing in the first division of Spanish football only for the second season. It was in the third tier four seasons ago. It has been a rapid rise.

"Everything is new. We will see how the team responds," said Garitano, who has been with Leganes since 2013. "I don't know how it's going to be. I haven't had the luck to be in many other games like this."

Leganes began gaining some notoriety only in the early 1990s, when it made it to the second division for the first time. It spent nearly a decade back in the third tier, from 2004-2014, before making the run that took the club to the first division in 2016.

Part of the team's success is linked to real estate businesswoman Victoria Pavon Palomo, who took over as club president in 2009 after her husband, Felipe Moreno Romero, became its biggest shareholder. They gradually revamped the club, which has been run much like a family business since then, with focus on maintaining financial stability.

With one of the smallest budgets in La Liga, Leganes has thrived without making huge signings, relying on local talent and loans.

The current squad has no top names. Its captain is veteran defender Martin Mantovani, who played for Atletico's youth squads but never made it to a top club. The midfield has Ruben Perez, who also started his career with Atletico, and Gabriel Pires, who used to play in Italian soccer. The attack has Moroccan Nordin Amrabat and Claudio Beauvue.

The team hosts matches in the 11,000-capacity Butarque Stadium in Leganes, a city of nearly 200,000 people about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Madrid. The club says it has about 9,000 members.

Its fans are called the "pepineros," or cucumber growers, because of the vegetable for which the region was known for in the past.

The club said six buses with pepineros will make the trip to Seville for the semifinal on Wednesday.

Getafe is the only other Madrid-area team in the first division this season, having played in the top tier since 2004. There were five Madrid teams in the top-flight two seasons ago, when Rayo Vallecano also participated.

Atletico is second to Barcelona in the Spanish league, with Real Madrid in fourth. Getafe is 11th and Leganes 12th, with a game in hand. Getafe and Leganes drew 0-0 last weekend in the southern Madrid derby.

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This story corrects the score of the Copa del Rey match between Real Madrid and Leganes.

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More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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