Long before Atletico Madrid broke the monopoly that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid held over La Liga, Valencia CF shocked Spain in 2002 by winning their first title in 30 years under the guidance of a relatively unknown manager, Rafa Benitez. He would go on to greatness, a hero at Anfield, a polarised figure in the Spanish capital and the messiah at St James’ Park, turning around the North East club’s fortunes in the English Championship.
After reaching two UEFA Champions League finals, Valencia had lost a whole host of talented players, a victim of their own success. In 2001, Claudio Lopez signed for Lazio, midfielders Gerard López and Francisco Farinós to Barcelona and Inter Milan respectively. Then the year later, Gaizka Mendieta, Joachim Bjorklund and Zlatko Zahovic moved on, with Didier Deschamps also retiring.
Valencia was Benitez first success story. From the brink of failure, facing the sack after a poor start, he transformed them into champions. Los Che only scored 51 goals, the lowest ever managed by the eventual winners. That lifted them back into the Champions League, setting up a meeting with Liverpool on the 17th of September 2002 at the Estadio Mestalla.
Live on British TV, the Spaniards ripped Gérard Houllier’s team apart, proving they were not a spent force, showing the rest of Europe that this new look side were not to be taken lightly. A number of players would go on to greater things, winning the title again in 2004, but what happened to that team that gave Liverpool a footballing lesson?
After 20 minutes Valencia would score the opening goal and the name of Pablo Aimar would be on everyone’s lips. The curly-haired Argentine midfielder weaved through the Reds defence, linking with David Albelda and Ruben Baraja in a beautiful one-touch move, finishing with El Mago placing the ball past Jerzy Dudek.
Labelled as the “next Maradona”, he was crafty and mesmerising, a joy to watch. The type of player that just glides across the pitch, leaving defenders in his wake. Lionel Messi once named him as an inspiration and you can see touches of Aimar in the style of David Silva at Manchester City.
Once Benitez left the club, injuries and a fall out with Claudio Ranieri saw Aimar left on the bench. He would leave for Real Zaragoza in 2006 after 200 appearances and 27 goals. Relegation in 2008 would take him to Benfica and saw him reunited with former River Plate team mate Javier Saviola. Their telepathic understanding, plus the addition of centre-forward Óscar Cardozo and the talented Angel Di Maria, helped the Portuguese club end their five-year wait for a league title.
He would spend five “wonderful” years at Benfica before signing for Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim. The playmaker would become the highest paid player to ever feature in the Super League, but due to more injury problems he only managed eight games for the Asian side. His career came full circle in 2015, as the 35-year-old returned to River Plate in Buenos Aires, 15 years after he left for Spain. Injuries hampered him again and he finally retired in July that year.
Blonde haired goalkeeper, Santiago Canizares, who famously missed the 2002 World Cup due to injuring his foot on a smashed bottle of aftershave, would end his career with Valencia. Hanging up his gloves in 2008 after playing exactly 500 league matches.
Centre-back Roberto Ayala followed a similar path as that of Aimar. Moving to Zaragoza in the same summer. He had actually signed for Villarreal from Valencia, but before having played for the Yellow Submarine, Zara would pay his release fee of €6 million to take him to La Romareda. He only stayed two years, moving back to Argentina in 2010 with Racing Club de Avellaneda.
Rather than follow the likes of Mendieta or Farinos, defensive midfielder Albelda was Valencia through and through. Handed the captain’s armband once Mendieta left for Lazio, he would play there until 2013 after making his debut in 1996 – even surviving a spell when Ronald Koeman axed him along with Canizares and Miguel Angel Angulo.
Baraja was Albelda’s partner in crime, and the duo were easily one of the best midfield double acts throughout that decade, plus he was the other man involved in Aimar’s stunning opener. One of the original box-to-box midfielders, he was key in Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 formation. He showed his quality that night against Liverpool. Driving forward through the middle of the park to fire an unstoppable shot low into the bottom corner.
Baraja would win two league titles, the 2004 UEFA Cup and 2008 Copa del Rey and after retiring in 2010, he would go on to manage the second team for a brief spell in 2013.
Liverpool fans will also remember Francisco Rufete, the Spanish winger scored the only goal of the game as Valencia beat the Reds 1-0 in the return game at Anfield. His low left-foot show was deflected beyond Dudek. He left the club after Quique Sanchez Flores arrived, joining Espanyol in 2006, helping the Catalan club reach the UEFA Cup final in 2007. He would retire at Hércules CF after moving back to Alicante, close to his hometown.
Mauricio Pellegrino had a six-month spell at Anfield, moving to play under Benitez after Ranieri had frozen him out of the squad. He was the first Argentine player to pull on the famous red jersey, making 12 appearances before leaving the Merseyside club. The centre-back left for Alavés, but retired, returning to Liverpool in 2010 to work as Assistant Manager to Benitez. He left with the Spaniard in 2012, picking up the first-team job with Valencia to replace Unai Emery.
Other names such as full-backs Curro Torres and Amedeo Carboni achieved little after leaving Valencia. Vicente Rodriguez, the exciting winger, tried to fight off injuries, moving to Brighton & Hove Albion in 2011. There were some flashes of the old Vicente, but injuries got the better of him. Released by the southern side, he had some interesting words regarding boss Gus Poyet when he left the seaside club.
Outside of Aimar, the only player that went on to extend his career away from that Valencia squad was Norwegian striker John Carew. It was his pass that night that set up Baraja for the run and goal and despite his huge ego and massive self-belief, there was an excellent forward in there too.
The 6 foot 5 striker would move to AS Roma and Besiktas before a spell with Lyon in France. Then Aston Villa signed him in exchanged for Milan Baros, with the Midlands side getting the much better end of that deal. With 34 Premier League goals over three full seasons, that was his best return after leaving Spain.
Sometimes in football, a club can create a perfect storm. Every player knows their role, they complement each other and can go on to, unexpectedly, achieve wonderful things. That has to be said of that Valencia side. Only a number of their players were top class, but together they were a formidable team and shocked Spain to win two league titles.