TWELVE years have passed since Rafael Benitez first introduced himself to Anfield. And what an introduction this was.
The Spaniard arrived on Merseyside for a Champions League clash with his Valencia team on this very date back in 2002. The then reigning champions of Spain had already taught Liverpool a multitude of lessons in their Mestalla stadium the previous month during a comprehensive 2-0 victory.
David Albelda, Ruben Baraja and Pablo Aimar had torn Gerard Houllier’s men to shreds with their intricate football and showed everyone precisely why they were known as ‘the crushing machine’ as they pressed Liverpool relentlessly throughout the game.
Despite that chastening experience in Spain, expectations on Merseyside remained high for the return match. This was to be an Anfield European night, after all. Ultimately, it counted for little.
Benitez’s team remained a class above the Reds. A deflected goal from winger Rufete after 34 minutes made the difference in the scoreline but in truth the gulf in class on the pitch was far more pronounced than the 0-1 result implies. Jerzy Dudek made several impressive saves in the Liverpool goal and also saw his crossbar struck before Valencia took the lead.
As expected, the Reds rallied but Santiago Canizares was hardly over worked and dealt comfortably with tame efforts from Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. Believe it or not, Salif Diao was Liverpool’s stand-out performer during this contest, which should illustrate just how the game went for those who can’t recall it. Even the late introduction of Bruno Cheyrou made little difference.
Following this defeat, Liverpool’s European campaign went from bad to worse. A draw with Basel on match day six saw them eliminated from the Champions League and enter the UEFA Cup, which they would exit at the quarter final stage after a depressing 2-0 home defeat against Martin O’Neill’s Celtic.
Valencia, meanwhile, would win the group and progress to the second group stage (remember that?) where they again finished top ahead of Arsenal, Ajax and Roma.
Inter Milan knocked them out in the next round to deny Rafael Benitez his chance at a Champions League quarter final. He would lead Valencia to the UEFA Cup the following season before returning to Anfield permanently as Liverpool manager where both he and the Reds would get another crack at the Champions League in the 2004/05 season.
Plenty more Anfield victories in Europe would follow.