Valencia CF 2-0 Liverpool FC
Valencia CF produced a superb display of attacking football to beat Liverpool FC in their opening UEFA Champions League Group B fixture.
Pablo Aimar and Rubén Baraja scored the goals in the first half, but the margin of victory in the Mestalla stadium could have been even higher as the home side signalled their intent of repeating their runs to the final in 1999/00 and 2000/01 against a team reduced to ten men late on.
Diao given tough task
After all the speculation about whether Liverpool would use Michael Owen or Milan Baroš up front, Gérard Houllier instead decided to partner Emile Heskey with El Hadji Diouf. With Stéphane Henchoz injured, midfield player Salif Diao joined Sami Hyypiä in defence, but few backlines could have suppressed the rampant home attack.
Aimar on top form
In particular, Valencia were grateful that Aimar was fully fit after a recent hamstring strain, as the Argentinian playmaker produced a peerless performance. John Carew was given a rare start, but played with the confidence of a regular.
The home side were on the attack from the off, and both Diao and Jamie Carragher were called upon in the Liverpool defence in the opening minutes. But, after Baraja and Carew had both gone close, Aimar opened the scoring on 20 minutes, converting after a fine passing move involving David Albelda and Baraja.
This did not stop Valencia moving forward, Vicente Rodríguez having a header saved by Jerzy Dudek. Heskey fashioned a Liverpool chance on the half-hour, shooting against the post from a narrow angle, but it was only a brief respite for the visitors.
Baraja doubles lead
And - after a warning when Aimar shot narrowly wide - the away side were two down seven minutes from the end of the first half when Carew touched the ball to Baraja, who shot home from 20 metres.
Owen injects pace
Liverpool introduced Owen and Bruno Cheyrou at half-time, and the pair injected pace and creativity into the English team's play, Steven Gerrard also getting a grip on the midfield. However, Aimar was still able to force Dudek to produce a fingertip save after a long-range effort four minutes into the second period, and, although Liverpool looked better than in the first period, they fashioned few chances.
Although Valencia had to withdraw the limping Aimar with 19 minutes to go, Liverpool were unable to take advantage. And the away side's chances evaporated altogether when Hamann was dismissed 13 minutes from time, receiving his second booking after a tussle with Aimar's replacement, Mista.
With Hamann gone, Valencia dominated the last minutes of the game, the best chance coming in the final minute when Dudek was forced to save at close range from Carew.
But the game had been tied up long before by Valencia, the Spanish champions already looking a significant force in this season's Champions League. Liverpool can take consolation from the fact that this was probably their toughest test of the group, but they will not want to come across another team in the excellent form of Valencia.