Category Archives: Champions League

Pablo Aimar – Valencia’s Argentine hero.

Pablo César Aimar Giordano was born on 3 November 1979 in the commercially important city of Rio Cuarto, located in the south of Córdoba province, in central Argentina. Situated in the fertile grasslands of the region, the city quickly became established as a centre for the development, processing and export of local agricultural produce. For fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol however, by far the city’s most important product and export was the young Aimar, whose exploits at the Estadio de Mestalla provided them with a feast of entertaining and exciting football, contributing to one of the club’s most successful periods, and giving him iconic status among fans of Los Murciélagos.

Born with an extravagant natural ability for football, the young Aimar was spotted at an early age by Alfie Mercado, coach of the Estudiantes de Río Cuarto, and would train there three times a week, honing his skills, learning the game and developing into a prodigious talent. Still in his early teenage years, news of the emerging talent quickly spread and, in 1993, River Plate acted to secure his services – before anyone else could beat them to it.

Initially, the teenager’s father was moved to rebuff their advance. With understandable parental concerns, he had planned out a future for his son in the medical profession. It took a visit and persuasive arguments from national footballing hero, iconic former River Plate captain and, at that time, manager of the club, Daniel Passarella to seal the deal. All thoughts of medicine were put to one side, as Aimar moved to Buenos Aires joining River Plate’s youth set up. From there progress would be little short of meteoric.

Still only 16 years of age, Aimar debuted for the club’s first team on 11 August 1996 away to Colón at the Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao López. At the time, River were enduring a difficult time and a 1-0 defeat left them in the lower reaches of the Clausura classification. Better times lay ahead for both club and their ambitious tyro recruit though as the young midfield player sought to establish himself in the team.

By early 1998, it has become increasingly difficult for new coach, Ramon Diaz to ignore the persistent claims of the young Aimar for an increasingly regular berth in the first eleven, alongside such luminaries as Enzo Francescoli, Marcelo Salas and Juan Pablo Angel. To underscore his case, in February of that year, the young prodigy scored the first of his 21 league goals for the club, netting against Rosario Central. He was still on 18 years old.

River would go on to secure the Apertura title 1999 and the Clausura in 2000. They were just a couple of the five titles that Aimar would win with River across his time in the Argentine capital, but his time there would be limited. Much as how his fame had spread in his native land, the global football grapevine is an efficient tool for passing on news of emerging talents, and by the end of 2000, the wealthy echelon of a number of top European clubs were making siren overtures to River Plate to take Aimar across the Atlantic.

At the end of the 1998-99 La Liga season, Argentine coach Héctor Cúper moved from Mallorca to take control of Valencia. He had led the island club to a highly impressive third position in the league during the previous season, finishing one place above Los Murciélagos, and was clearly bound for higher things. Valencia acquired his services and, by the end of 1999, profiting from the Champions League place secured by that fourth-place finish, the previous season, had established their credentials in the competition, remaining unbeaten, and topping their initial group ahead of Bayern Munich, with Rangers and PSV Eindhoven trailing behind. In the second group phase, a runners-up place behind Manchester United and quarter-final victory over Lazio took Valencia into a final four confrontation with Barcelona, and a 5-3 aggregate passage against the Catalan club. In the final against Real Madrid however, Valencia’s brave run was halted with a 3-0 defeat to Los Blancos. A third-place finish in the league however offered up another chance at continental glory.

Once more, the first group stage was completed with some comfort, as Valencia topped their section again. It took them into a second stage grouping alongside Manchester United – for the second year running – Austrian club Sturm Graz and the Greek club, Panathinaikos. In December 2000, following a 3-1 home win over the Austrians, a goalless draw in Athens placed Valencia in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stage, when the competition resumed after the winter break. By that time though, their ranks would have been swollen by an expensive signing from South America. 

In December of 2000, Aimar would play his final game for River Plate in a 3-2 defeat to Club Atlético Lanús. He had worn the club’s famous colours on 82 occasions, delivering 21 goals but, just as importantly and perhaps even more significantly given his role in the team, the record books reveal that he had also assisted in creating a further 28 goals. The new year would place him in a new club, in a new country and a new continent. Aimar’s talents had been acquired by Valencia for the princely sum of €24million and he would move to Spain in the following January. It made the young midfielder, still just a month or so past his 21st birthday, Valencia’s most expensive acquisition to date. His performances would soon serve to justify the expenditure.  

Despite his high value, there was no initial easy path into Cúper’s starting team, with the Argentine coach wary of disrupting the core of his successful regular selections until Aimar became fully ingrained into the role he was required to play. As the weeks progressed though, his speed and creativity proved to his compatriot that he would be a valuable asset, one that would only improve both the team’s performances and results with his dazzling displays. 

On Valentine’s Day, Manchester United visited the Mestalla in the Champions League. They would face a Valencia team featuring the debut of Pablo Aimar. The game ended goalless but the playmaker’s display had many observers purring – not least among them Johann Cruyff, then coaching Barcelona. Cúper was also convinced and Aimar made his league debut the following weekend against Las Palmas and scored to mark the occasion in a 2-0 win.

Although it’s always difficult being parachuted into a successful team halfway through a season, Aimar’s Valencia career was up and running. He would participate in all of the club’s remaining Champions League fixtures, as Valencia finished above Manchester United before progressing past English clubs Arsenal, and then Leeds United, to reach their second successive final, this time against Bayern Munich. Although the contest was much closer than the heavy defeat against Los Blancos in the previous final, Valencia again finished as runners-up as the Bavarian team won in a penalty shoutout after a 1-1 draw.

In contrast to their experience in the Champions League, Valencia had a less successful time in the domestic league and, a fifth-place finish precluded any opportunity for a tilt at reaching a third consecutive final. Instead, they would compete in the UEFA Cup. Perhaps considering that his stock was at its highest point, Cúper decided to leave the club, taking over at Internazionale. If some considered that the departure would herald a spiral in fortunes Valencia, the arrival of Rafa Benitez to take over, would quell such fears.

In contrast to his predecessor’s pragmatic tactical approach that restrained the full flowering of Aimar’s creative talents, Benitez more expansive ethos would allow it to bloom. Playing in a midfield three alongside David Albelda and Rubén Baraja, the diminutive Argentine enjoyed a sensational and hugely influential season. He would play 40 games for the club across all competitions and, although only returning half-a-dozen goals, Aimar’s play was a key factor in Valencia winning the La Liga title for the first time in 30 years. The final table, with Valencia seven points clear of second place suggests a stroll to the title, but for a long time that as hardly the case.

On 30 March, with Valencia tied on points with Real Madrid, Benitez took his team to the holiday island of Tenerife to face the local club at the Estadio Heliodoro Rodríguez López. It was a key turning point of the season. Had they faltered and failed to return with the full three points Los Blancos would have pounced, and with 23 minutes remaining that looked to be the likely outcome. The club’s official website recalls how the game was finally decided as “Pablo Aimar scored a great goal of the time, one of those worthy of a title [before] … The Argentine went crazy taking off his shirt.”

The goal, and win, dismissed any lingering concerns that Valencia would stumble and fall to the irresistible pressure coming from Real Madrid. How important was the goal? The Valencia website offers an answer. “After retiring, Aimar acknowledged that the goal he ‘remembers the most’ and ‘the most beautiful of his career as a professional was that one, scored against CD Tenerife.” From there Benitez’s side went on to win five of their final six league fixtures, the other being a draw away to Mallorca, and secured the title with a 0-2 win against Málaga with games in hand.

Perhaps suffering from an anti-climax following the tremendous success of 2001-02, or that sort of difficult ‘second season syndrome’ Valencia’s fans had far less to cheer during the following term, despite Aimar enjoying his most prolific goals season with the club, scoring 11 goals in 46 games across all competitions and eight in 31 league games. Ironically, Valencia were eliminated by Cúper’s new club in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and domestic form was little better. A fifth-place finish was disappointing, a gap of 18 points to champions Real Madrid was even more so, although qualification for the UEFA Cup would deliver a massive dividend the following term. 

The collapse in the league position from champions to a distant fifth place suggested to many that the title victory had been a mere lucky break season, when everything occasionally falls for you. After the poor defence of their title, Valencia needed to deliver a riposte and dismiss such talk. They did so.

Across the 38-game league season they lost only seven games and, two of those were the final fixtures of the season after the title had been secured. It meant that Valencia had climbed back to claim their place at the top table of Spanish football, securing the title by two points from Barcelona.  Their tally of goals scored at 72 was only one less than top scoring Real Madrid but, to emphasise their dominance, the 27 that Valencia’s defence conceded was precisely half that of Los Blancos. Again, Aimar was a key influence in the team’s success appearing in 25 of the club’s La Liga fixtures. There was further glory to come in Europe.  In the UEFA Cup, Aimar would feature in eight of the club’s ties as Valencia progressed to the final and overcame Marseille to lift the trophy. Aimar would appear in the game staged at the Ullevi in Gothenburg, but only from the bench. The club’s ‘double’ season, as well as being his most decorated, would also be last of his truly exceptional terms with the club.  

Aimar’s final two seasons with Valencia were as difficult as the earlier three had been delightful. Instead of being allowed to demonstrate his skills to thrill and delight the fans at the Mestalla, much of his time was spent starting from the bench, or returning to it after being withdrawn. Following the success in Europe, Benitez had expected the club to continue its development by adding the players he requested for the squad, but he was to be disappointed, famously declaring that “I was hoping for a sofa [a defender] and they’ve brought me a lamp [Fabián Canobbio, an attacking midfielder]” He decamped to join Liverpool to be replaced firstly by a returning Claudio Ranieri, and then, after an unsuccessful period, by Antonio López.  

The following term brought Quique Flores to the club as coach and, although Aimar’s time on the pitch did increase, there was little doubt that much of the magical talent displayed under Cúper and then Benitez had dissipated. At the end of the season, with his contract running down, Valencia decided to accept an offer of €11million from Real Zaragoza and Aimar left the Mestalla and his adoring fans.

Pablo Aimar played a total of 216 games for Valencia scoring 34 goals and, doubtless, contributing assists to a number twice that great. For players such as Aimar, however, mere figures are an inadequate way of measuring their worth to a club. Entertainment, enthralling and exhilarating performances have no numerical reference, but are the very criteria by which fans judge players of his ilk. Quantitative evaluations are worthless measures in assessing his time in Valencia. Qualitative evidence is required. So, let’s take such contributions from three sources, each of which is well qualified to offer an informed opinion.

The official club website offers evidence of the affection that Aimar is held in by fans of the club up to the present day. “Every time Aimar returns to the Mestalla,” it relates. “The public stands up, nostalgically remembering the famous songs of yesteryear: “Come on… Pablito Aimar, glory will return, like Kempes and the Louse, another immortal kid ”. It’s an affection that is clearly reciprocated. During an interview after he had announced his retirement and took up a post coaching the Argentina U17 team, Aimar made his feelings about Valencia clear. “I had a very beautiful time in Valencia. Two of my children are Valencian. I have a special affection for the city. Hopefully they will reach the top again, [my] team [drifted away], since then it has had good moments and others not so much, but surely it will return to the position it deserves,” he said.

Leo Messi once said that, “Aimar is my idol,” and if that is not enough, there’s the occasion when, back in December 2004, Aimar played for Valencia as they visited the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. Messi was absent from the Blaugrana team at the time, but Aimar found him at the end of the game, and gave him his shirt. As the Valencia website suggests. It was “a magical moment that neither would forget.”

But, let’s leave the last word to probably the greatest Argentine player of all time, and perhaps the best that the world has ever seen, especially playing in a role similar to that of Aimar.  In an interview with World Soccer magazine in 2003, the recently lost, but much lamented, Diego Maradona said of Aimar that, “Pablo is the only current footballer I’d pay to watch. He’s been the best player in Argentina over the last couple of years and is even more talented than Riquelme or Saviola.” Who is going to argue with Diego? Not me, and not fans of Valencia Club de Fútbol either.

(This article was originally produced for the These Football Times ‘Valencia’ magazine.

Fernando Torres – The Nou Camp Matador.

torres

There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!”

On 24 April 2012, Chelsea turned up at the Camp Nou to defend the slenderest of leads, thanks to a backs-to-the-wall effort at Stamford Bridge where, in a game overwhelmingly dominated by the visitors, Didier Drogba had managed to snaffle a precious goal on one the home team’s rare visits to the opposition penalty area. Now they had it all to do keep their Champions League aspirations alive in a game where Barcelona were sure to be looking to secure the goals their domination should have earned a couple of weeks previously in west London.

Things didn’t start well for the visitors. A dozen minutes in, Gary Cahill tweaked a hamstring and had to be replaced. It would get worse. Despite holding out until ten minutes before the break, a rare goal by Sergio Busquets brought the aggregate scores level. Two minutes later, a malevolent rush of blood to the head saw John Terry dismissed after a senseless knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez. It didn’t end there. Just two minutes ahead of the break, Andrés Iniesta netted the second for Barcelona to put them ahead, and leaving Chelsea “…a mountain to climb,” in the words of Martin Tyler. The game looked well and truly up for Roberto di Matteo’s team.

A goal by Ramires in injury time at the end of the half seemed scant consolation. Yes, it put Chelsea ahead on away goals, but surely wouldn’t be enough. The second period would inevitably bring a Blaugrana onslaught and down to ten men, with both first-choice centre-backs off the field it looked like it would need something extraordinary if Chelsea were to survive; something quite “unbelievable” in fact.

Sitting on the Chelsea bench as the white line held firm against the home team’s swarming attacks was Fernando Torres. Born in Fuenlabrada in the Madrid Metropolitan Area, El Niño had log been a hate figure for the Cules in the Camp Nou. As well as hailing from the heart of Castilian Spain, in his first period with Atletico Madrid, he had scored seven goals in a mere ten games against Barcelona, and last year took that total to 11 in 17 games. The goal he would notch in this particular game however may well have been the most galling for the Cules.

As the expected onslaught raged on the pitch, Torres watched from the sidelines. For over half-an-hour the attacks battered at the white wall Di Matteo had organised to prevent his team capitulating under the pressure. Chance after chance was squandered, but still a Barça goal didn’t come; Messi even crashed a penalty against the bar and away, as the home team charged forward. With just one substitute change remaining, Chelsea’s Italian manager threw the fresh legs of Torres into the fray with ten minutes to play, detailing him to defend the left flank of the stubborn defence.

Another home attack broke down, and the ball fell to Torres. Trying to drive downfield to ease the pressure, he hit the ball forward and then chased. Possession was lost though, and Torres slowed to an amble, then a trot forsaking his defensive position. The ball was driven into the Chelsea box for the umpteenth time, but another block diverted the ball up onto Ashley Cole’s chest. The full-back lashed the ball clear, with surely ne’er a thought to it being a potential through ball. It was simply a hack away from danger.

As the TV screen followed the ball however, Fernando Torres also honed into view. His aborted breakout had taken him past the last defender, and as the ball dropped to his feet around the halfway line, he was clear. Only                 Carles Puyol was even in the same screen, but he was some 15 metres behind the galloping striker. Back in Spain, and at a ground where he had scored a number of times previously, Torres shed the cement overcoat that had hampered so much of his play for Chelsea, skated clear, rounded Valdes and rolled the ball into the net. “Ooooh,” orgasmed Gary Neville as Torres turned away, sinking to his knees in front of the home fans who were probably shouting anything except “Bueno, El Niño!” Two minutes into injury time, Torres had returned and thrust an estoque into the worn-out bull that was the Blaugrana team.

Raúl – Local boy. Global glory.

In the Madrid suburb of San Cristóbal de los Ángeles, a proud father had watched his young son score any number of goals in the very same way, controlling a pass, feinting to deceive defenders, once, twice, and then coolly slotting the ball past a despairing goalkeeper. They were goals of skill, ability, and an inbuilt calmness with ice-cold conviction They also led to the parents of his team-mates to christen the player ‘Aguanis.’ To his doting father however, he was Raúl González Blanco. Continue reading →

The Lament of Stade de Reims – So nearly the first champions of Europe.

When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →

Paul Lambert – Forever the Scottish brick in Dortmund’s Yellow Wall

For any footballer at a mid-ranking club, bereft of the sort of the perceived talent and reputation that attract admiring clubs like moths to a light, and a defunct contract, there’s an obvious fork in the road. To the right lies the safe path. Your club wants to offer you a new deal. It’s safe. It’s guaranteed. It means you can still provide for your family. The other road – the one leading to all sorts of left field possibilities – is solely reserved for the brave, or the foolhardy. It leads to, well that’s the whole point. You simply don’t know where it leads, and if your briefly itinerant excursion into the exploration of the unknown is a dead end, there’s no guarantee that you can retrace your steps and opt for the other road afterwards.

Such a choice faced Motherwell’s Scottish midfielder Paul Lambert, at the end of the 1995-96 season. Lambert chose left path, having “…always wanted to try to play abroad.” As he later remarked, “I had nothing to lose at the time and never knew how things were going to pan out.” Sometimes the right path is the wrong path. Lambert chose left and twelve months later with a Champions League winner’s medal in his pocket after a Man of the Match performance negating the talents of Zinedine Zidane, no-one was questioning his sense of direction. Continue reading →

Chelsea 4 Liverpool 4 – All thud and blunder in a very British Champions League encounter.

Although hardly a formality, it seemed that the home team held all of the trump cards. Chelsea had travelled to Anfield two weeks earlier and returned with a 1-3 triumph. Despite falling to an early goal from Fernando Torres, Guus Hiddink’s team had played their way back into the game with cool assurance amongst the raucous Merseyside atmosphere and with a brace of headed goals from Branislav Ivanovic plus a strike from Dider Drogba, had ended the game as worthy winners. It gave the Blues an excellent chance to reach the last four of the Champions League for the second time in consecutive seasons.

Twelve months previously, they had met Liverpool in the semi-finals of the competition when, after a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Chelsea had triumphed 3-2 after extra-time in as closely contested home leg to take their place in the final, where they would ultimately lose out to Manchester United on penalties. This time however, with three away goals safely pocketed from the win on Merseyside, Chelsea would have been expecting progress along a much less rocky road. In a game that throbbed and pulsated with tension and a repeated switchback of advantage and emotions though, that would hardly be the case.

In the previous five years, Liverpool and Chelsea had faced each other two dozen times, with seldom much to choose between them, especially in the days when Continue reading →

The golden years of Sampdoria – Calcio’s ‘Hipster’ club.

 On 6 September 1992, Channel Four launched its ‘Football Italia’ series relaying live Serie A games to a UK audience broadly unaware of the delights of the domestic Italian game. Experience of Italian football had been largely limited to teams competing against British clubs in European competition, but from that date, the gates to a broader appreciation of Calcio were thrown open. Any thoughts that viewers may have had that the experiment would wilt as defensively dominated football would be a turn-off were dispelled by the opening game as Sampdoria and Lazio featured in a hugely entertaining 3-3 draw.

Whoever chose that particular match-up to introduce Serie A to a potentially sceptical public had selected wisely. Lazio had just secured the services of Paul Gascoigne, although injury prevented him taking part in this game and ‘Samp’, as they were widely known, were one of the top clubs in the country. In fact, the previous season market the zenith of their powers and the end of a glorious four-year period for the Genoese club who had risen to prominence with a roster of legendary players, a coach who delivered outstanding performances from his players, and a shirt that became the byword for football hipster wear at the time. Continue reading →

The money-fuelled rise of PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.

It’s probably an incontrovertible truism that, in modern football, money talks. Some may argue that rather than talk, money actually screams out in uncontrolled profanity, but whatever your viewpoint on that, there’s little doubt that within the modern game, success and money tend to go hand in hand.

In England, Roman Abramovich became the first mega-money arrival to shake up the Ancien Régime when, as David Dein put it, he “parked his Russian tanks on our lawn…firing £50 notes at us.” This was then advanced another notch or three when Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan took control of Manchester City. In France the largesse of Qatar Sports Investments has endowed PSG with the money to dominate the domestic game merely as a prelude to chasing that elusive Champions League trophy. In Spain, the income of Real Madrid and Barcelona dwarfs all other clubs in the country and in Italy, via the EXOR organisation, the Agnelli family‎ fund Juventus, whilst Berlusconi fed the Rossoneri and after Massimo Moratti passed on the baton, Zhang Jindong’s Suning Commerce Group took over control of the Nerazzurri from Eric Tohir.

There are surely many more examples. It is not however only in Western Europe that money has bulldozed its way into the ‘beautiful game.’ Across the old Soviet-controlled east, big money is making its presence felt, and the Bulgarian club, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, more popularly known as ‘Ludogorets’ is a good example. Razgrad is a town situated in the northeast Bulgaria, in the region known as Ludogrie, which refers to the wild forests around the area and is the home where Ludogrets were formed in 2001. Continue reading →

Beauty and the Best – Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

At the heart of almost every successful team is a solid backline, usually built around the central defensive partnership. They are the bedrock of the team. They provide the foundation upon which a team is built and can grow and flourish. If the value of such partnerships is gauged by the success enjoyed by the team, then the trophies garnered by AC Milan when they dominated European football in the eighties and nineties suggest that the partnership provided by Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi was nothing but pure gold. Continue reading →

The often wise “Words of Osim.”

Ivan Osim – often popularly known as ‘Ivica Osim’ – was born in Sarajevo in 1941. The son of a Slovene-German father and Polish-Czech mother, he grew up during times of ethnic strife.  Germany had invaded the then Yugoslavia just a month before his birth. It was a traumatic time that would burn deep into the mindset any young child, and it would be hugely understandable if the experience endured by the young Ivica would influence his attitude to issues in his later life. Continue reading →