Saturday, May 8, 2021

Valencia vs Leeds in 2001 UEFA Champions League semi-final

With Lim running the club into the ground and now not even being shy about the fact that he doesn't care (see his Financial Times interview where he says the club is a "trophy asset that is incredibly good for networking) it's hard to believe that Valencia was one of the top clubs in Europe. Today is the 20th anniversary of our last UEFA Champions League semi-final versus Leeds United. (It is, incidentally, also Leeds' last Champions League game.)

Valencia had of course reached the previous final, suffering a disappointing 0-3 reversal against Real Madrid. The result was also a let down in Zaragoza, since Madrid had finished 5th and it therefore deprived Zaragoza of a Champs league place. In the summer, in a reminder that we were always a selling club, we lost Piojo Lopez to Lazio for 35m (€49m in today's money.) Gerard to Barcelona for 24m and Farinos to Inter for €16m. We did at least use part of that money wisely, bringing in players who would be the mainstay of the team in the following years: Aimar from River Plate, John Carew from Rosenberg, Vicente from Levante and Ayala from Milan.

Under Hector Cuper, Valencia was fired up and ready to go one better. With only the top two Spanish teams qualifying automatically for the group stage, we had to enter a play-off versus Tirol Innsbruck. After a goalless draw in Austria, Valencia easily brushed them aside 4-1 at Mestalla, with a brace from Mendieta and Diego Alonso.

With Valencia first seeds in the first group stage, we drew Olympiakos and group stage debutants Lyon and Heerenveen. 4 straight wins put us through with 2 games to spare. With a few players rested, we lost game 5 at Olympiakos, giving them the head to head and putting our status as group winners at risk, but a draw in the last game secured it.

With the format then featuring a second group stage, we again entered as first seeds. We got lucky, drawing as second seed another Austrian team, Sturm Graz, suprise winners of their group. Pot 3, however had Lazio and Manchester United, and we drew the latter, meeting them in the 2nd group stage for the second year in a row. Another Greek team, Panathanaikos, rounded out our group. A 2-0 win over Sturm Graz, with goals from Carew and Juan Sanchez, was followed by 0-0 draws in Greece and at home to Man U. The Valencia teams of that era were very much built on a defence first approach. A crunch game followed at Old Trafford, with Valencia going behind to an Andy Cole goal. With time running out, great trickery on the left from Vicente produced an 87th minute own goal equaliser. That left the group finely poised, with Man U leading on 8 points, us and Sturm Graz on 6 and Panathanaikos eliminated.

A crucial match in Austria followed. Could we rise to the challenge? We did, and in style. A fifth minute header from Ayala gave an early lead, before second half goals from Carew, Kily and a brace from Diego Alonso gave us an emphatic win to qualify us for the next round. Even better, Manchester messed up in Greece, scraping a draw with a 92nd minute equaliser. That meant we only had to match their result in the last game to be group winners. With Man U easily beating Graz, a nervy encounter at Mestalla saw us fall behind before Kily equalised and Angloma won it in the 75th minute.

The knockout stages had arrived. Leeds, Galatasaray and Arsenal were our possible opponents and we drew the last. An Ayala first half goal was cancelled out by 2 Arsenal goals in the second half to leave the tie on a knife edge. Valencia struggled to break down a good Arsenal defence and looked done until Carew rose to head home in the 75th minute. 

And so to the semis. Leeds had done very well, coming out of a group featuring Barcelona and Milan and then knocking out Lazio in a second group stage that also contained Real Madrid, only losing in the Bernabeu after Raul had punched a winner into the net.

The first leg in England saw heroics from both goalkeepers to produce a 0-0 result.

For the second leg, Valencia kept their usual formation of 4-4-2, with a midfield diamond: Albelda in place of Baraja screening a strong defence of Pellegrino and Ayala, with Kily and Mendieta in central midfield and Aimar in a more advanced position, supporting a strike force of Carew and Sanchez.

Juan Sanchez was nicknamed the Romario of Aldaia, but in this game he was more reminscent of Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarters: a dubious first goal against an England international keeper before a sublime individual goal killed off English hopes.

In the first half, Leeds, who'd shaved their heads to go for a "warrior" look, more than held their own, though without creating too many chances. But they were outdone in the 16th minute. Kily played a delightful cross field ball to Mendieta and the latter's looping cross was bundled in by Juan Sanchez. A good goal. Or was it? Replays showed it had hit his shoulder and upper arm. After a sneaky glance at the referee, Sanchez rushed off to the corner to celebrate. Leeds, with memories of the Real Madrid goal still fresh, were understandably aggrieved and protested vociferously, but the goal stood. Years later on his Twitter, Sanchez jokingly admitted it, saying with a wink that if the ref had asked, he'd have said it was his "chest hand."

The goal didn't change the dynamic so much. Leeds still only needed a goal to progress. The early period of the second half, however, killed off their hopes. Sanchez received the ball outside their area, cut inside and from nearly 30 yards out, hit a superb low drive which beat Martyn. Sanchez' ecstatic celebration is one of the defining images of Cuper-era Valencia.

Leeds were rattled and, minutes later, conceded a third. Annoyingly, the TV companies were focusing on a foul committed by Aimar and missed the build-up, but reports say that Sanchez provided the assist. Mendieta ran to the outside of their "D" and unleashed another low drive which beat Martyn at the same post.

Leeds were sunk and the rest of the game was more a story of whether Valencia would add to their lead. Vicente put Sanchez through and the latter did well to lob Martyn, but was denied a hat trick by the post. A great run by Mendieta brought a save from Martyn and the latter also denied Carew  and Sanchez as Valencia turned on the style. Leeds' frustration boiled over at the end with a deserved red for Alan Smith after a horror tackle on Vicente.

As the celebrations went on through the night outside Mestalla, the only slight disappointment was that Real Madrid had lost the other semi to Bayern, demying us a chance of revenge in the final. The final itself of course would be one of the biggest disappointments in our history and dominated by penalties. An early lead from a Mendieta penalty, Canizares saving a penalty a few minutes later. Bayern equalising with a second half penalty and then winning the shoot out in sudden death after Zahovic, Carboni and Pellegrino had missed. 

In the summer, Cuper left, while Mendieta was sold to Inter for 47m, around 65m today and still a club record.

While Valencia maintained its position as a key player for most of the 2000s, poor financial decisions would eventually prove our undoing and 2001 was our Champions League peak. Leeds ended up in an even worse position, being relegated in 2004 and then to the third level in 2007 as players were sold off. One of them, Ian Harte, ironically ended up in Valencia, playing for Levante. He was a regular at the Irish pub at Plaza Canovas and when I asked him about the semi-final he was diplomatic, saying that the best team had won.  

All in all, watching that game (highlights here and full game here) is a bitter sweet experience. A reminder of how good things used to be before owners messed it all up.

Which brings us back full circle to the current owner's interview. It's still a mystery why he fails to understand that performances like this would provide him with more of the "networking" opportunities he craves. Until he leaves, happiness will often only come from memories like this semi-final.