When David O’Leary’s young Leeds United side came up against Valencia in the Champions League semi-final, they were facing one of the then giants of Europe.
The Spanish side had reached the final the season before, only to be defeated by Real Madrid.
Leeds were proving themselves on the continental stage on an annual basis, having featured in the UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray in the same season.
However, Valencia would ultimately prove themselves to be too experienced and crafty for the Whites to triumph.
In the first leg, neither side could outdo the other. Valencia were renowned for having one of the best back lines in European competition – from Roberto Ayala to goalkeeper Santiago Canizares, it was a defence filled with genuine stars.
Ayala’s brilliance left a lasting impression on Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand.
“Roberto Ayala of Valencia was outstanding,” said Smith. “When I was trying to back into him, he never let me feel where he was. I never knew when he was going to tackle me.”
“In all the European games, ‘Smudger’ and ‘Vidooks’ bullied their way past defenders, physically and technically,” added Ferdinand, a mid-season £18 million signing from West Ham. “But Ayala and Mauricio Pellegrino stood up to them.”
Valencia’s defensive brilliance could be seen in the absence of chances Leeds had in the first half, aside from an opportunity seven minutes before half-time.
A typical Ian Harte free-kick was headed across the face of goal by Harry Kewell. Ferdinand then got a touch, with the ball falling to Smith only two yards out, who contrived to head it wide.
It was the best moment Leeds mustered in a first period dominated by Valencia.
Nigel Martyn was the hero of the half, making a pair of brilliant saves to keep the game level. Future Aston Villa striker John Carew couldn’t beat the England international with a spectacular bicycle kick, with Martyn diving to his left to spectacularly keep him at bay.
Leeds ended up controlling the end-to-end clash in the second half, giving themselves opportunities to take an important lead to the Mestalla.
Dominic Matteo almost scored another important header in Leeds’ European campaign, but Canizares clawed his effort away. Legendary referee Pierluigi Collina judged that the ball had not crossed the line.
Minutes later, Smith then chipped Canizares, and while Mark Viduka failed to get a shot away in the six-yard box, Lee Bowyer should have scored, with the Spanish stopper stranded. Sadly for Leeds, the usually reliable Bowyer hit the woodwork with his effort, leaving the scores level.
With only minutes to play, Ferdinand lived up to his huge transfer fee by heading substitute Vicente’s effort off the line, meaning that as Leeds headed to Spain, they had everything to play for, with the tie completely level.
O’Leary was impressed with his charges after the game, saying: “It was always going to be tough, but we have played against a very good side and upped the tempo in the second half.”
Leeds’ endeavours at Elland Road would ultimately come to nothing, with the Spanish side managing a 3-0 win in the away leg, ending the team’s glorious European adventure at the last hurdle before the final.
Leeds United 0
Champions league semi-final first leg, May 2, 2001.
Leeds United: Martyn, Mills, Harte, Ferdinand, Matteo, Bowyer, Dacourt, Batty, Kewell, Viduka, Smith. Subs: Robinson, Kelly, Woodgate, McPhail, Wilcox, Bakke, Burns.
Valencia: Canizares, Angloma, Pellegrino, Ayala, Carboni, Albelda, Baraja, Mendieta, Kily Gonzalez, Sanchez, Carew. Subs: Palop, Deschamps, Djukic, Zahovic, Vicente, Aimar, Aurelio.
Referee: Pierluigi Collina (Lucca).