Story so far
Valencia, UEFA Champions League runners-up in 2000 and 2001, will be hoping to make it third time lucky in 2003. With two final appearances under their belt, the Spanish champions will be confident of progress from the second group stage into the knockout phase. And once there, Rafa Benítez's men will seek to exorcise the ghosts of Paris and Milan - where they lost finals against Real Madrid CF and FC Bayern München respectively.
First, though, they must negotiate a way past Group B opponents Arsenal FC, AFC Ajax and AS Roma. Already Valencia are playing catch-up behind the former two clubs, having been held at home by Ajax before taking a point from Arsenal's Highbury stadium. Certainly, they have the players to do so - Pablo Aimar, Rubén Baraja and Santiago Cañizares all being top-class international talents.
The question mark against the Mestalla team, however, is whether they can steer clear of injuries. This particular curse has already limited Argentinian midfield player Kily González to just three appearances in the competition, striking in the form of a knee injury and then ankle ligament damage. But if they can stay healthy, they will be expected to reach at least the last eight.
Valencia had few worries on the pitch during the first-group stage. They won five games out of six to top Group B, the highlight being a single-goal victory at Liverpool FC, secured by Francisco Rufete's first-half strike. And the manner of their dismantling of the Premiership side in the home tie on Matchday 1 removed any doubt about their ability to live with the best following a one-year break from the Champions League.
The rest of Europe discovered the true meaning of defensive fortitude when Valencia denied the famed Arsenal strikeforce in a Matchday 8 stalemate. Not that they had not had fair warning: Benitez's men took out a patent on the 1-0 victory during their Spanish championship triumph last term. That win was seen as a major breakthrough for a club which owes its success more to team play than any financial power.
It seems churlish to criticise Benitez's team. Yet if there is a weakness it is that Valencia must be sure to kill off opponents, particularly at home. Against Ajax, in the Matchday 7 draw, they doubled the number of shots on and off target by the Dutch side but still needed a stoppage-time equaliser from Miguel Angulo to avoid defeat. It says a lot, too, that last season's top scorer was a midfield player, the inspirational Baraja.
Key player - Pablo Aimar
Star man has undoubtedly been the Argentinian Aimar. The 23-year-old provides the spark for Valencia going forward, bringing what the Spanish call 'verticality', or directness, to unsettle opposition defences. With speed and skill also in the Aimar armoury, the only surprise is that he has managed only two goals so far in the tournament.
Best moment so far
Handing a double footballing lesson to Liverpool along the way to winning their section in the first group stage. It was a statement of intent from the Spanish champions, and one that reminded the rest of the competition of the threat Baraja and company will pose in the spring.
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