The nearly men: Valencia and the Champions League

The nearly men: Valencia and the Champions League

IT’S APRIL 2001 and a Champions League quarter-final where Valencia host Arsenal at the Mestalla, trailing by a goal on aggregate. The atmosphere is tense, gripping, and drawing to an enthralling conclusion. It has already been a hostile affair; shirts pulled, cards brandished, and whistles blown, much to the chagrin of the Spanish support.

The home side pressured early to derail the Gunners’ rhythm, and it worked in their favour, helping to restore balance where some was lost. Ray Parlour lost possession deep in Valencia territory when the opposition broke forward through Gaizka Mendieta, gliding past Patrick Vieira, with six advancing attackers storming to puncture the Arsenal rear-guard.

For all their discipline on both ends, they were rewarded. Jon Carew climbed above all else to deliver a darting header and pull it level for the Spaniards. The next few moments were euphoric and engulfed with pandemonium. But quickly an urgency to compose and recalibrate, with respect to the opposition, was necessary.

With 15 minutes remaining, Valencia were leading on away goals against a team that many believed to be strong favourites to progress. They just needed to hang on. Again and again, Arsenal were held. Wiltord, Henry, Pires and Ljungberg were all thwarted by everything that wasn’t the back of the net by way of defenders throwing themselves at the ball with force. The home side was disciplined and unyielding – even more so than an opposition whose back four was patrolled by Tony Adams and Martin Keown.

Three minutes were added on by the assistant referee standing on the touchline. Vieira, wide on the right, hangs a cross in the air for Thierry Henry, but Cañizares punches it clear. One last chance. Henry rifles one from just outside the box, but it has been claimed calmly by the Valencia shot-stopper. Everyone but Arsenal is calling for time and the game to finish before all the resolve shown completely falls apart.

Hector Cúper is a mad man, pacing the touchline furiously. Then, finally, full-time. Valencia 1, Arsenal 0, the score read. A team in the ascendancy, striving for its second consecutive Champions League final, Los Che were building a legacy and others could only watch. This was the beginning.

This was a side that blended a disciplined approach to defending what is theirs, with a penchant for entertaining on the counter-attack when the numbers are in their favour. A squad full of personality intermixed with exciting young talent, and wise, experienced heads.

Santiago Cañizares, a seasoned veteran who was part of Real Madrid’s séptimo European title campaign, provided a much-needed vocal presence. Roberto Ayala, nicknamed El Ratón (The Mouse) for his five foot nine inch stature, earned a reputation as one of Europe’s premier defenders entering his peak. David Albelda and Rubén Baraja comprised the central midfield, but it was another name that made it all click: Gaizka Mendieta.

Mendieta was the driving force behind the brilliant football led by Héctor Cúper, a quiet and unassuming character who said all that needed to be said on the blades of grass beneath his feet. Others noticed, including Real Madrid, and that prompted a stern response from the club when bids came in. “I’d rather go hungry than sell him,” said Valencia’s then-president.

Mendieta was at the forefront of an unfancied team that had very little business going the way they were. A Champions League final the season prior was not part of the script.

So when Leeds United eliminated also unfancied Deportivo Alavés, the tie was difficult to call. The 2000-01 edition of the Champions League featured a second group stage format that has since been abolished. AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Lazio were among those to not proceed. Real Madrid won their draw against Galatasaray 5-3, while Bayern Munich exacted their revenge on Manchester United 3-1 on aggregate.


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The mood in Spain was intriguing. “Thuggery” was the word Marca ran with ahead of the semi-finals. Cúper asked of his forwards to be more physical and aggressive in training, and the idea was to prepare for what would be a physically intense affair at Elland Road.

David O’Leary’s team, though young, were brave and daring, and for many were also a surprise package.

“Leeds are typical of an English team,” Roberto Ayala told the press. “They fight for every ball. We know all about Alan Smith, he’s a very aggressive player.”

Both sides were confident, knowing of their destiny. Leeds had English football’s promising collection of young players at their disposal in the form of Robbie Keane, Ferdinand, Smith and Kewell. They comprised a team set for the future in all positions, something that was unheard of for a team outside of the Premier League’s quadropoly of heavyweight clubs. With a manager who had only been in the job two years, it is was a rare situation and something that they could not take for granted. “This is a unique experience for both myself and my players. We’re just two games away from a European Cup final, and we might never reach this point again,” said O’Leary.

When Cúper’s side travelled to West Yorkshire, the first leg ended goal-less. Advantage Spaniards. Both sides had chances and sometimes rode their luck, but Leeds felt aggrieved to have not at least dented their opposition’s hopes. Being in front of their own supporters did little to dispel the travellers who had a clear prerogative heading into the affair to not concede.

It left the reverse leg with everything to play for. Interestingly enough, Cúper’s time at Valencia was met with both adulation and derision by his club’s own fans – mostly the latter. It was highlighted when an anti-Cúper brigade ambushed his car when he substituted Claudio López to preserve a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid the season before. The ‘Cúper Out’ cries were made clear by the disillusion of slow and stagnated football, even with the brilliance of Mendieta, Baraja, Kily González and Pablo Aimar.

“It has been unpleasant but I have never lost faith in my ability,” he said. “It has not affected my self-confidence.” That self-assurance clearly permeated other areas, including his squad, as Valencia entertained Leeds some six days later. Not only would victory ensure their passage to the final, but also the presence of royalty. King Juan Carlos of Spain promised to be in attendance on 23 May if Cúper’s men could reach the final.

Motivation enough, Valencia led the scoring early. A cross-filed pass out to Mendieta allowed him to whip in a threatening cross just in front of Paul Robinson for Juan Sánchez to meet. Valencia led, as the scorer was swarmed by his team-mates near the corner flag. Leeds furiously appealed for handball – Sánchez indeed appeared to dubiously use his arm – but the goal was upheld. The two teams went in at the break with Valencia leading.

Pablo Aimar drifted inside to find Sánchez with a quick pass at the beginning of the second period, only for the striker to fire a low shot from well outside the box. It found its way in and, just like that, the lead had doubled. It wasn’t just that the goal had been scored, but the fact that what were simply scoffed dreams were formalising into a rushing reality. The expression on his face, as well as the onrushing players to mob him, exemplified that.

Then, when Mendieta raced through deep into Leeds’ final third, he rifled a shot into the bottom corner a la Sánchez. Three-nil and, ultimately, game over. He didn’t celebrate and only looked to reconvene proceedings by jogging back to the half-way line, but he didn’t make it that far. Before long, he suffered the same fate as Sánchez by heading straight into the mob party of team-mates to celebrate, irrespective of whether he wanted to or not. Inside, though, he was surely ecstatic.

Aside from what was a controversial handball that referee Urs Meier failed to rule out, Leeds were comfortably outplayed by the Spaniards. Their post-match reactions were tellingly so of the events that had transpired. “I thought that the best team won,” David O’Leary said. Rio Ferdinand summarised the dressing room’s morale, saying that they were “bitterly disappointed”.

For O’Leary’s young guns, a Champions League return was the mission objective. It wasn’t to be, however, as Gary McAllister fired home Liverpool’s historic winner against bitter rivals Everton to secure a dramatic 3-2 win in added time. It would prove decisive in both the Merseyside derby and the league table, as Liverpool stole third place from under Leeds’ noses to qualify. Given the board’s financial decisions to predicate future success on Champions League qualification, missing out by a single point was catastrophic, to say the least.

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For now, Valencia’s outcome was resolved on Tuesday of that week, which meant that their opponents would be known the following evening. In it were Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, both seeking to add to their litanies of European success illustrated by the past half-century. The Germans came and went away with a 1-0 victory at the Bernabéu the previous week courtesy of Giovane Élber.

“One of the greatest upsets in Champions League history,” according to Henry Winter at the time. Many had expected Madrid to at least score, but it was Bayern’s defensive display, led by Oliver Kahn’s heroics, that settled the leg. Real’s European crown was under threat.

Bayern, however, were only a few steps away from being kings of Europe for the first time since 1976, in the years of Maier, Beckenbauer, Rummenigge, Hoeness, and Müller.

It was a slender lead that Bayern would build on. Élber was at it again when an incoming cross was fiercely jostled for in the 18-yard box. Michel Salgado headed the ball off the crossbar on the line, before the Brazil forward came in to nod it home roughly five yards from the net. Real needed to answer, and quickly. Roberto Carlos lofted a searching ball out to Raúl and, with a masterful touch, controlled it and laid it off to Luís Figo for the equaliser.

Pressure began to mount, with every foul committed attempting to harangue Bayern players for the ball. Aitor Karanka brought down Hasan Salihamidžić resulting in a free-kick some way from goal. From it, Mehmet Scholl played in Jens Jeremies with a quick pass from which the midfielder fired past Iker Casillas. Real were caught off-guard and Bayern had the advantage again. More attackers were thrown into the fray, but Bayern had succeeded. The title defence was lost, and the Germans were through to Milan.

The build-up towards the San Siro showdown was defined by the tactical dichotomy between the two sides’ coaches. Ottmar Hitzfeld and his technical, creative and open style was very much at the forefront of European football with an expansive outlook. With Kuffour, Andersson and Linke comprising a three-man rearguard ahead of the imperious Oliver Kahn, Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu stretched the width of play with speed, allowing Scholl, Jeremies and captain Steffen Effenberg to go to work centrally. Ahead of them, roaming the 18-yard box, was the towering aerial presence of Carsten Jancker and the prolific Élber.

Then there was Cúper. A pragmatic, shrewd and stubborn coach. Allowing Claudio López, Gérard and Javier Farinós to leave in the summer largely disintegrated his support to remain at the Mestalla, sticking with a preference to nullify others than enforce the strengths of his team. This defence-first mentality aggravated many, but it worked, to the point that Valencia reached the European Cup final twice in two years, as well as overcoming Barcelona in Spanish Super Cup 4-3 on aggregate.

After the previous year’s disappointment, avenging the heartbreak was on his mind, and to prepare differently. “I am really keen to come away with a victory in this final,” Cúper told the press. “Sometimes you think it is your turn to win, but you have to work and be prepared for such events.”

He did just that. Only five of the previous final’s starting 11 remained. Six different faces were named, including the outstanding Roberto Ayala to form the back four. The outgoing Farinós and Gérard were replaced with the younger compliment of Baraja and Aimar. In attack Sánchez replaced López, and Carew had been too good to not play, at the expense of Miguel Ángel Angulo, who would not be involved in the entire 18.

Hitzfeld opted for the bright and combative Owen Hargreaves to partner Effenberg in the middle. Salihamidžić and Scholl roamed behind Élber, supported by the touchline-hugging full-backs in Sagnol and Lizarazu. In effect, the formation would overload the centre of midfield with four against two. Valencia would be pressed to engineer attacks centrally but find solace in their innovative orchestrators out wide.

Only a minute had elapsed when Kily González found himself one-on-one with Kuffour on the left. The defender missed a tackle to leave the Argentine open to advance on the edge of the 18-yard box, pulling back to find Mendieta in the middle. A slew of red shirts met Mendieta, and with enough frantic shot-blocking, it rendered a penalty decision. Bayern were stunned. Protests were declined by referee Dick Jol, who clearly felt that the ball had struck Andersson’s hand. Up stepped Mendieta to steer home the lead.

Open play remained stretched, particularly for Valencia. Every Bayern advancement into the Spanish final third was greeted by a horde of white shirts to disrupt it. Élber slipped through to hang a cross to the far post in the sight of Jancker, only for Amadeo Carboni to clearly connect the ball with his hand. Penalty again. Jancker was adjudged to have pushed Carboni in the back resulting in the involuntary handball, but it wasn’t seen that way – not by Jol anyway. Regardless of Los Che‘s appeals, even long after the decision had been made, Effenberg responded. Bayern levelled proceedings shortly after half-time.

As time wore on, Bayern became more assertive and Valencia more regressive. For the two strikers and midfielder that Hitzfeld brought on, Cúper replaced Ayala with Đukić, Aimar with Albelda, and Sánchez with Zlatko Zahovič. Neither side could find a goal in normal time, and extra-time proved inconclusive as well. Penalties it was, with only a few seconds of adrenaline separating heavily contrasting emotions. Agony or euphoria; either way there could only be one or the other.


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Up stepped Paulo Sérgio of Bayern from 12 yards out, whistles from fans drowning out the noise, photographers behind Canizares perched behind the hoardings in a readied pose. The goalkeeper stood tall, arms outstretched, in waiting. Upon the shriek of the whistle, Sérgio half-ran at the ball, with a fake in between, but side-footed it over the bar. Missed. Valencia fans were joyous, and the advantage laid with them.

Both teams traded blows with each spot-kick. Mendieta followed, then Salihamidžić, then Carew, and Zickler. All had scored, leaving the tie three apiece. Zahovič was denied by Kahn’s leaping save to his right, and then Canizares cradled Andersson’s tame effort despite a measured run-up from outside the penalty area. Carboni, who had given away the penalty that drew Bayern level, had his effort thunder off the crossbar, much to the fierce enjoyment of Kahn and his clenched fists.

Normal service of success from the spot reconvened when Effenberg, Baraja, Lizarazu, Kily González and Thomas Linke all converted. It would then be left to defender Mauricio Pellegrino after 13 others had come and gone. Pellegrino had been impressive all campaign for Los Che, and to help them secure a European title after last year’s misfortunes would be fitting. What would stand in between him and that glory was Oliver Kahn, however.

From outside the penalty area, Pellegrino sprinted at an angle towards the spot that could only mean one way. A shot with the inside of his foot was aimed towards the far corner of the goal and, sure enough, Kahn guessed correctly. Saved. Bayern had just secured their first European Cup for more than 25 years.

For the retribution of pain and anguish from a few years prior for one side, the suffering continued for another. Valencia, for the second consecutive season, finished runners-up in the Champions League final. An elusive trophy, they would feel a bitter injustice that nothing could remedy, other than the cup itself.

Many assumed that Cúper would, at some point or another, leave the club. He did at the end of the season and was later hired by Inter. After a couple of years, he would return to his former club Mallorca in Spain and take on another eight jobs after that. Cúper, remarkably, has been involved in professional football for the last four decades, though his search for intercontinental silverware remains evasive.

The 2001 Valencia side diverged and branched into different areas. Albelda, Baraja and Cañizares would all remain at the club until the end of their careers, amassing 1,166 appearances between them, with Baraja having returned in a coaching capacity since then.

The ruthless centre of defence, in Ayala and Pellegrino, went elsewhere. The former played out his days at Real Zaragoza and Racing Club in his native Argentina, whilst the latter had an unremarkable spell with Liverpool before returning to Spain with Alavés.

Mendieta became something of a fabled hero with Middlesbrough, despite that troubled stint with Lazio, with Carew doing similar at Aston Villa and featuring for several others, including both Stoke City and West Ham, in the process.

Since then, Los Che have remained unable to remain consistently successful. The rise of Atlético Madrid and Sevilla in recent years, with both having won and retained European titles on four separate occasions since then, leaves their work cut out for them. When the club decided to let go of Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa, it spelt a sharp decline.

At the beginning of the new decade, Roberto Soldado was the club’s leading goalscorer in three consecutive campaigns. He has since left, struggled to replenish that scintillating form, and returned to his native Spain in the form of Villarreal. Though they struggled in the Champions League, two of those three seasons were third-place league finishes.

Soldado lamented his exit and disastrous spell with Tottenham, putting it down to mentality. “I think in the end what let me down was my head; for whatever reason, it wasn’t right,” he told the Guardian‘s Sid Lowe in an interview. Now the talk of the town revolves around Paco Alcácer, and fears of when – and not if – he will leave.

You can only really describe Valencia to be in permanent slumber at the moment, sleepwalking into further derision. When they will wake up is anyone’s guess, but the teams of yesteryear serve as a reminder of not just who they once were, but also what they wish they had become.

By Nicolas Kituno @n_kituno

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