Pablo Aimar may be the spark to light Valencia CF's UEFA Champions League fire.
By Graham Hunter
Matchday 1 of the UEFA Champions League saw one of world football's greatest players, Pablo Aimar, make a return to the competition. And after several months of injury and a few weeks on the bench, the Argentinian wasted no time in showing the world what it had been missing.
Aimar shone in the 2-0 win against RSC Anderlecht that marked the UEFA Cup holders' return to the Champions League, and he underlined his importance to the club at the weekend as he set up a goal for team-mate Marco Di Vaio in Valencia's 3-1 Primera División win against Real Sociedad de Fútbol.
"I'm hungry to play after months when I hope I've had my quota of injuries," he said. "You come back and your sharpness and confidence are affected and the ball bounces off you when you go to control it! But now I feel better and better with each game."
A knock that may yet cause him to miss next week's Champions League tie away to Werder Bremen was unfortunately proof that Aimar's injury jinx has not deserted him yet, but for the sake of the competition, most will be hoping that he will be fully fit again soon.
Following a season when FC Porto playmaker Deco not only inspired his side to Champions League victory but was voted as the competition's most influential midfield player, the scene seems set for Aimar to emphasise that he also has something special to offer the competition.
The two players, alike in their physical stature, South American heritage and the devotion they inspire in their fans, are among a small group of footballers who can add divine improvisation, vision and moments of genius to teams who generally favour hard work and team play over individual stars.
Aimar himself has a quirky and surprising view of his own talents and their place in the football firmament. "I love beautiful football, indeed you could say that I live for beautiful football," he said. "But I'm convinced, and I have been for a long time now, that all that the fans really care about is victory.
"Sure, during a game the supporters like it if you can produce a trick or do something spectacular," he added. "But I think that in two or three days' time those moments are forgotten. What remains is 'did we win or not'. That's not necessarily my pure outlook on the game but it is what I have come to accept as the dominant instinct of modern football."
That philosophical contrast might explain why, when he returned from a long injury lay-off in April and May, his old coach Rafael Benítez chose to use him primarily as a substitute as he led his side through the final stages of their triumphant Primera División and UEFA Cup campaigns.
So, does Aimar have a battle to fight, not now against injury, but to convince new coach Claudio Ranieri that his presence in the team is essential rather than a luxury? Perhaps so, but as far as the player is concerned, there will always be a place for him in a successful Valencia team.
"Claudio Ranieri's Valencia is the same as Rafa Benítez's Valencia in that it must be a very competitive team," he said. "We must take the initiative and we must go forward decisively in every game. And with Valencia playing this style of football the team will need to be rotated or it won't be able to last."