Football is a game of margins and one wonders how differently many things would have turned out if certain critical moments went the opposite way. It’s remarkable to think that Rafael Benitez was once forty five minutes away from being fired by Valencia, barely six months into the job. And yet, looking back now, he can lay claim to being Valencia’s greatest manager, at best, and a top 3 manager in their history, at worst. Remarkably, all of that was done within three years. It’s important to point out, though, that three years is a very long time in Valencia. Most managers in the club’s history did not last that long.
Viewing the achievements of the Valencia team in 2003/2004 from the summer of 2003 wouldn’t give complete context, not when they were league champions just two seasons prior. The core of the team that had won the league in 2001/2002 was still there. There was something different about this team though, and it might have to do with how they were still viewed despite winning the league already. That 01/02 team had been such slow starters that Benitez was under pressure before January. Before the game that had Benitez on the brink of a sack and ultimately turned their season around, they had won five games, drawn nine and lost two. And then they were 2-0 down at Montjuïc, a place which had lots of bad memories for them – they lost four out of four Copa del Rey finals there including three in a row in the 40s. In the space of seven second half minutes, they scored three goals and never looked back, winning 15 of their remaining 21 games.
What stood out, though, was the fact that they had won the league scoring just 51 goals. Their three title rivals scored 65, 69 and 65 goals. Their topscorer? Ruben Baraja, a central midfielder who played only 17 games. He scored seven goals. Deportivo La Coruna’s topscorer had 21 goals. Real Madrid’s top scorer had 18 goals. Barcelona had two players who scored a combined 35 goals. Yet, somehow, Valencia won the league by seven points. It was a remarkable feat that highlighted their defensive solidity – while Valencia conceded 27 goals, two other teams conceded 34 and 37, every other team in the league conceded over 40 goals. To put it simply, there were whispers that they had fluked it, that their stars had simply aligned. Those whispers grew louder when Valencia’s 02/03 season turned out to be quite disastrous. The champions finished 5th, scoring 56 goals and regressing by 15 points. They got dumped out of the cup at the second hurdle by third-tier Valencian club Alicante on penalties, after barely making it there following another penalty shootout in the previous round against third-tier Gimnastic de Tarragona. The final nail in the season’s coffin came when Inter knocked them out of the Champions League quarter-finals thanks to Christian Vieri’s early goal at Mestalla. 2003/2004 was the season to respond, and they emphatically did.
Summer 2003 did not go as anyone would have hoped. Rafael Benitez’s constant issues with the club’s sporting director, ex-player Jesús García “Suso” Pitarch had reached a new level. Pitarch had come into his new role to replace another ex-player at the club, Javier Subirats, in 2002. Subirats remained the club’s technical secretary until he left in 2004. While many like to attribute Valencia’s successes in that period to Pitarch and his dealings, the reality is that Subirats was the main man behind the successes, not Pitarch. A lot of the players Subirats was responsible for forming the core of the great Valencia sides from 1998-2004, the entirety of his first stint at the club. Benitez himself was close to Subirats who had brought him to the club and never got along with Pitarch. “I asked for a sofa and he’s brought me a lamp,” Benítez said, criticising Pitarch’s work.
During the team’s presentation, Benitez was cheered by the fans but Jaume Orti, president of the club, was booed. That was how Mestalla always made their voices heard – Nuno Espírito Santo can testify. The fans were upset at the transfer dealings and the rift between Benitez and Suso. It wasn’t hard to see whose side they were on in the debacle. Pitarch had signed Fabián Canobbio, Jorge López and Ricardo Oliveira. Benitez was livid. Of the three, he had only asked for López. Benitez had also asked for Samuel Eto’o from Mallorca, and Dani García, from Barça. Pitarch delivered neither. Instead, he let three strikers leave – John Carew, Salva Ballesta and Diego Alonso. Benitez had wanted Carew & Salva gone, but with the expectation that Eto’o and Dani would come in. The departures left Valencia short in attack. There was the newly-signed Oliveira, whom Benitez did not want; Xisco, who was battling injuries, Sánchez, whom Benitez had told was surplus to requirements and Mista, who turned out to be one of the heroes of the season. Meanwhile, Real Madrid signed David Beckham and Barcelona signed Ronaldinho.
And so the season started. The first game was at Mestalla against Benitez’s former club, Real Valladolid. They took the lead early in the first half. Not long after, Valencia won a penalty. New signing Ricardo Oliveira stepped up to take it and missed. Mestalla groaned. Valencia kept searching for an equaliser until Pablo Aimar popped up around the 70th minute mark to save Valencia. 1-1 it ended and Benitez went on a rant afterwards. Everyone knew who his anger was directed at even though he did not name names. The summary of it was, ‘this is not the squad I asked for, I needed more signings to be made’. When asked, Pitarch stressed that the squad was good enough, pointing out that five of the players had been called up for the Spanish national team. This was not to be the end of it and they kept going at each other all season. Suso himself almost got fired by December that season. Through his tenure, he is said to have resigned twice with both rejected by the club.
Valencia bounced back and won their next six games without conceding a goal. What made that extra impressive was that they ran through Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, with two of those games away from home. Deportivo soon brought them back to earth at Riazor but these first few weeks set the tone for how Valencia’s season would turn out. Ruben Baraja, Pablo Aimar and Vicente were delivering wonderful performances, the defence was steady with David Albelda sweeping everything in front of them and Mista was banging in goals. Even Ricardo Oliveira had bounced back from his poor start to net against Madrid and Barcelona. Scoring against those two is the fastest way to win Valencian hearts. The team’s form started to get unsteady but they recovered soon after and went into the new year in great form and on top of the league. There were some incredible victories, including the 5-0 win away at reigning Copa champions Mallorca in November and a 6-1 win away at La Rosaleda where Malaga called home, in January. In both games, Ricardo Oliveira scored hat-tricks. As it turned out, those two games along with the Barcelona and Madrid games were where all his goals for the season were scored. He scored no other goals. In the Copa del Rey quarter-final, Real Madrid knocked the team out 5-1 on aggregate, with Raúl, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane all scoring. If Valencia had hopes of a treble, they were gone.
Before the 6-1 win at La Rosaleda, they had lost top spot to Real Madrid due to drawing away at Valladolid and losing at home against Osasuna. A clash with Real Madrid soon came after Atletico got soundly beaten at Mestalla. This was going to be a title-decider against the Galacticos at the Santiago Bernabeu. The Madrid team came into the game in great form after racking three straight wins. Ronaldo Nazario had scored four goals in those three games and looked every bit ready to continue that run against Valencia’s tough defence. Valencia had to go there to not only prove their title credentials but also take back top spot from Madrid who were two points clear. Los Che played a great game and took the lead through a strong Ayala header from a corner. It was reminiscent of his header against Malaga two years before which had helped deliver the title on a nervy day. Valencia held on till the 90th minute when a controversial penalty was awarded to Real Madrid for a foul on Raúl. The Valencia fans and players could not believe it, convinced that it was a crazy decision. Referee Tristante Oliva didn’t budge and Figo stepped up to level things up. It was the 92nd minute.
If that performance showed that Valencia were indeed to be taken seriously, the next two games didn’t. Valencia went up against two sides from Barcelona and lost both games. First, they lost at Mestalla to Barca through a 77th-minute goal by Gerard López who had spent three years at Valencia in the 90s. Then a visit to their nightmare place, Montjuïc, followed. The same stadium where they had revived their title hopes two years prior became the stadium where their title hopes looked buried. Raúl Tamudo, who became famous for destroying title dreams, was on song to make sure Valencia went home with nothing. His brace sank Valencia, making Mista’s goal nothing more than a consolation. Real Madrid encountered no such problems, dispatching Espanyol 4-2 at Montjuïc before also smashing four past Celta Vigo at the Santiago Bernabeu in a 4-2 win. Ronaldo had once again starred, scoring three in those two games. From being two minutes away from going a point clear on top of the table, Valencia were now eight points behind Madrid. All it took was fourteen days.
There were 12 games left for Valencia to wipe out an eight-point Real Madrid lead. No one expected Valencia to bounce back. As far as everyone was concerned, the title race was over and Real Madrid were champions. Perhaps, the pressure being off their backs was key in getting Valencia back into the race. Perhaps it was what they needed to quietly knock the galacticos off the top spot. March 2004 began with talk of Real Madrid possibly winning the treble. They were in the final of the Copa del Rey, preparing to go up against David Villa’s Real Zaragoza. They were eight points clear in the league which everyone considered over. And they had an advantage over Bayern in the Champions League second round, after a 1-1 draw in Germany. Ronaldo was showing the kind of form reminiscent of his old self.
First league game in March, Valencia beat Deportivo 3-0 at Mestalla with Vicente scoring two goals and delivering an assist. Real Madrid went to Santander, took the lead in the first half and lost it within four minutes. They could not find a way through after that. It ended 1-1 and the eight-point lead over Valencia became six points. The following week, Real Madrid welcomed Real Zaragoza without Ronaldo and Raúl this time. Portillo gave them the lead but it got wiped out within five minutes, the equaliser coming at exactly the time the Racing equaliser had come the previous week. Once again, they could not find a way through. Meanwhile, Valencia won 2-0 at Balaídos without Aimar and the six-point lead had become four points. Then the Copa final came and Real Madrid lost in extra time to Zaragoza. Their season was crumbling and the pressure on them was now heavy. Valencia had no such issues as they were now firmly the underdogs. Days later, Real Madrid went to San Mamés, this time with Raúl, and got destroyed by Athletic Club 4-2. Valencia once again put five past Real Mallorca, winning 5-1 at Mestalla with a hat-trick and assist from Mista and two assists from Vicente. The four-point lead had become one point. Within three weeks, Valencia had recovered seven of the eight points they needed to recover.
Madrid got back to winning ways in the next two weeks as the title race got more interesting and April began. A 5-1 win over Sevilla and a 2-1 win at Albacete kept them just ahead of Valencia who had registered 3-0 and 2-0 wins against Real Murcia and Racing. Vicente was in the form of his life now, driving the title charge with the likes of Mista, Baraja and Albelda. Real Madrid had to take care of business on the continent, facing Monaco in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie. They had won the first leg 4-2 and took a first half lead in France through Raúl. Monaco equalised just before half-time and found the other two goals they needed to eliminate Madrid in the second half. The Galacticos never recovered. Valencia also had a UEFA Cup engagement, facing a tough quarter-final against Bordeaux. A 2-1 win away thanks to Baraja and Rufete put them in a good position and they returned to Spain to continue their title charge.
A visit to La Romareda was next for Valencia and they won the tricky game 1-0 thanks to an Angulo goal. They had now won six straight games since that defeat away to Espanyol. Real Madrid welcomed Osasuna at home and got absolutely destroyed 3-0. It was a shocking result following their shocking exit in Europe to Monaco. Valencia were now two points clear of them and top of the table again. It had taken six weeks to turn an eight-point deficit into a two-point lead in the run-in. Valencia maintained their lead at the top of the table the following week but only just. Down 2-0 to Real Sociedad at Mestalla, Vicente popped up with a goal in the 71st minute before Miguel Ángel Mista scored a 90th minute equaliser. Real Madrid had derby day at Atlético and triumphed 2-1. Both teams were now level on points.
The next two games put Valencia in the driving seat for the title. Real Madrid had to face Barcelona at home in the Clasico and then go to Riazor which was their bogey ground. Valencia themselves had to go to the tough San Mamés before welcoming Real Betis at Mestalla. But before this, Valencia faced Villarreal in a tough UEFA Cup semi-final first leg. It ended 0-0 and they traveled to San Mamés for the tough league game. There were five games left to play. The game ended 1-1 but Valencia went a point clear because Madrid lost to an 86th minute Xavi winner at the Bernabeu. The next week, they got taken apart at Riazor, losing 2-0. Valencia took care of Real Betis at home, with Ruben Baraja the star of the show. 2-0 it ended and Valencia were now four points clear of Los Blancos with three games left.
Valencia faced Villarreal again in the UEFA Cup semi-final and beat them 1-0 at Mestalla through a controversial Mista penalty early in the game. All of a sudden, they were the ones being talked about with respect to a double. Could they do it? It was starting to look like they could. And then Real Madrid lost again. Samuel Eto’o came to town and the Galacticos crumbled further on Saturday. With that result, Valencia were now three points away from the title. All they had to do was beat Sevilla away on Sunday and they would be crowned champions.
The game in Seville was just 11 minutes old when Vicente, Valencia’s main driving force all season, broke away with the ball down the left after a pass by Xisco and smashed a goal in at the near post. From then on, Valencia played a patient, conservative game, dealing with the Sevilla threat well. Ayala, Marchena and Albelda formed a block in front of Santiago Cañizares, who had been exceptional all season. Carboni and Curro Torres locked the channels while Vicente provided the outlet with his direct running and dribbling. In the second half, Ruben Baraja came on for the ineffective Oliveira to add solidity in the middle of the field, before Angulo and Aimar came on to help Valencia see out the game. In the 90th minute, Xisco slipped a pass to Baraja who took a touch to get away from his marker before smashing in a second goal. The Valencia support and bench went crazy. The title was all but sealed. 2-0 it ended and the Valencia fans jumped onto the pitch to celebrate with the players. There were iconic images of hugs and a close up of David Albelda’s face as he celebrated the title win with fans.
If anyone felt the 2001/2002 title victory had been a fluke, they now knew it wasn’t. This was a solid team with an incredible spine. They had shown resilience two years prior in the run-in and held their nerve to win the title, especially when the pressure was heavy enough to crush them. Once again, they had overcome adversity this time to win it, and one could look at how the very experienced Galacticos had handled the pressure when it was on them to truly appreciate how this Valencian team had fared when adversity came. They lost their final two league games after winning the title but still had their record points tally of 77 points. Only Real Madrid outscored them (72-71). They, once again, conceded just 27 goals like they had in the previous title win. Just like the other triumph, no other defence came close to theirs. Vicente had put in a season to remember, scoring 12 league goals and delivering nine assists. Mista, the team’s top scorer, had 19 goals and four assists. There had been other key offensive contributions from Aimar, Jorge López and Baraja. And on the day the title was won, Xisco’s couple of assists helped the team get over the line.
There was still one more hurdle left for the team; the UEFA Cup final against Marseille. Marseille had dropped out of the Champions League group consisting of Real Madrid and eventual winners Porto. In their UEFA Cup run, they had taken out Liverpool, Inter and Newcastle United with Didier Drogba proving to be a handful. In that final, they lined up in a 4-4-2, with Vicente and Rufete given the license to be devastating in the channels. The double-pivot of Baraja and Albelda held their own in the middle while Angulo and Mista played off each other upfront. In defence, the reliable back four of Carboni, Ayala, Marchena and Curro Torres were expected to deal with Marseille’s attacking threat, with Ayala and Marchena there to handle Drogba. In goal was Cañizares. The first half saw a balanced game with Valencia having it better in the final third. Just before half-time, Fabien Barthez took down Mista and got a red card. Jérémy Gavanon came on but could not stop Vicente’s expertly taken penalty. As Marseille tried to get into the game in the second half, Vicente laid on a brilliant pass to Mista to score just before the hour mark and send Valencia fans into raptures. Marseille still had thirty minutes to find two goals but it was not to be. Valencia held on to claim a famous doblete, the first in their history. A season that had started so horribly became the most memorable in their history!
Many still look back on this Valencia team with fond memories. There were the stand-outs, the supporting cast who put in a shift and gave the star players a platform to perform and then the bench who were very good when called upon. There were others, like Fabio Aurelio, who could barely contribute due to a broken leg that ruled him out for the season. He had helped deliver the title in 01/02 with his goal at Malaga and was remarkably Valencia’s joint top scorer in 02/03 in the league. Kily Gonzalez, who joined Inter at the start of that season, was not missed because Vicente fully emerged. Benitez would leave for Liverpool that summer, where he went on to win the UEFA Champions League in his first year. Suso Pitarch also left that summer. Claudio Ranieri made a return to the club but it ended up being a disaster and he was fired in his first season. The most unfortunate occurrence following this wonder season happened with Vicente. He started the 04/05 season on fire but suffered an injury that completely altered the course of his and the club’s history until he left and then retired. To this day, everyone wonders what could have been for him and this glorious team.