Internazionale FC will take the slimmest of leads into the away leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final with Valencia CF after an early Christian Vieri goal won them a game which they spent mostly on the defensive. Pablo Aimar was inspirational for Valencia, but against a determined Inter rearguard there was no way through, even after both sides were reduced to ten men.
Hector Cúper, the Inter coach charged with preventing Valencia from reaching a third Champions League final having led the Spaniards to their previous two, welomed back Hernán Crespo and Vieri in attack, after both missed the 2-0 win at Bayer 04 Leverkusen that took them to this stage. He also opted for Marco Materazzi in defence rather than Fabio Cannavaro as Inter aimed to keep alive the prospect of a semi-final against neighbours AC Milan, who drew 0-0 at AFC Ajax last night.
Cúper's Valencia successor, Rafael Benítez, had attacking midfield player Rubén Baraja back from suspension, allowing Aimar to again partner striker John Carew, while Carlos Marchena replaced the banned Mauricio Pellegrino in defence. Benítez's team started well and immediately put Inter under pressure. Vicente Rodríguez was especially lively on the left wing, but other than a hopeful Carew effort, clear-cut Valencia chances were few.
Inter relied on swift counterattacks, and it was from one that they took the lead on 14 minutes. Turkish international Emre Belözoglu made a fine run down his touchline and sent in a deep cross, Crespo detfly flicked on, and Vieri placed his header to the right of the stranded Santiago Cañizares.
The goal barely changed the pattern of play as Valencia continued to move forward only to be restricted to long-range efforts. Inter had a setback on the half-hour as left-back Francesco Coco fell awkwardly, strained a muscle and was replaced by Giovanni Pasquale. Valencia continued to attack, but other than a David Albelda effort that forced Francesco Toldo to dive and save, Inter kept their visitors at bay until half-time.
After the break, a fine Valencia move resulted in Toldo having to save an Aimar header from close range. However, the first significant action of the second half came on 57 minutes as the two sets of players squared up after a foul by David Albelda on Emre - and referee Markus Merk opted to dismiss the pair.
Aimar was not bothered by the upheaval and produced a thrilling run into the Inter box only to see his angled shot saved one-handed by Toldo. Inspired by the Argentinian, Valencia resumed their domination, and Cannavaro eventually arrived for Crespo in the final minutes as Inter defended deeply.
Mista headed an Aimar cross over the bar, but even four minutes of added time and a heart-stopping moment as Aimar went down in the area, only to be booked for simulation, could not produce an equaliser for Valencia to take back to Spain in a fortnight.