A lot has been said these last few weeks about Inter’s recent history at the Mestalla, so I thought it would be nice to take a little trip down memory lane, seeing as how the past is not lost on the Spanish fans. Valencia have become the Nerazzurri’s main Euro-rival over the last few years and quite honestly, the encounters in Spain have been nothing short of incredible.
The Inter-Valencia rivalry unofficially began on May 23, 2001. As the Spaniards prepared for their second consecutive Champions League final, this one at San Siro, coach Hector Cuper was laying the foundation for his next career move, one that would take him to the blue side of Milan. Valencia were beaten by Bayern on penalties, and Cuper waved goodbye. As fate would have it, the Argentine boss would be drawn against his former side in the quarterfinals of the 2001/02 UEFA Cup. A 1-1 draw at San Siro in the first leg set the stage for….
Valencia-Inter 0-1 (March 21, 2002): Taken as a single game, and not in the broad context of an entire season, I have to admit that this remains one of the most enjoyable matches I’ve ever seen. If you remember, Inter looked to be on their way to a Scudetto/UEFA Cup double but were faced with a dilemma. With Roma invading the San Siro for a top-of-the-table clash the following Sunday, Recoba and Christian Vieri were rested. As luck would have it, though, Nicola Ventola provided the away goal in the third minute to stake Inter to a crucial 1-0 lead. Valencia then proceeded to pepper the Inter goal for the next 92 minutes. The squad stood tough, though, despite gradually moving behind the ball and showing no interest in a second goal. I remember that I had a bunch of buddies and the general consensus in the room was that there was absolutely no way Inter would be lucky enough to hang on in the second half by as narrow a margin as they had done in the first. Amazingly, it got even more nerve-racking. Clarence Seedorf cleared a ball off the line purely by accident and Toldo made save after save. The keeper then provided the exclamation point by being shown yellow for dissent and then red for time wasting. With Inter out of substitutions, Francisco Farinos (who had been purchased from Valencia) put the gloves on. The first shot he faced bounced off his chest, knocked him backwards and rolled about eight yards, but somehow Inter, now with all ten men in the box were able to hang in and escape with a 1-0 win and qualification in what was a remarkable tie.
Valencia-Inter 2-1 (April 23, 2003): Thirteen months later, Inter were back at the Mestalla for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, looking to protect a 1-0 win in the first leg. This match is famous for how eerily similar it was to the year before. After five minutes, it was Vieri who poached his way to a goal and put Inter in front 1-0. I think I speak for all Interisti when I say that at this point I believed we were safely through. We had a 2-0 lead on aggregate, an away goal and looked to be in good shape. Pablo Aimar had other ideas though and leveled just two minutes later. Valencia then took control of the match, once again throwing everything at Inter. Toldo, after his bizarre game the year before, was the unquestionable hero this time making several incredible saves. For me, it, along with the Euro 2000 semifinal, was one of the defining moments of his career. The crucial aspect of this match, though, was that after Aimar equalized, Toldo and the defense, which included a shaky Giovanni Pasquale in his first year in the senior squad, were somehow able to put off the inevitable second goal until the 51st minute. One got the feeling that had Valencia gotten this second score before halftime, as they were close to doing, they probably would have gotten a third in the second half. Inter, however, survived the ensuing barrage, took back possession and earned an away goals qualification.
Valencia-Inter 1-5 (October 20, 2004): After coming under fire for their defensive style of play in their previous two trips to Valencia, Inter showed that life under Roberto Mancini was a whole different ballgame. This has become one of the more famous matches during Mancio’s time in charge, somewhat deservedly so as five goals on the road in the Champions League is a mighty tall order. For me personally, though, this was one of those games, though undeniably memorable, that gets remembered a little differently than it was. Despite both sides having chances in the first half, Inter had much more of the play. Unfortunately, it looked like the Nerazzurri might not be able to break through and went into the locker room at 0-0. The story of the game, however, was the second half charge. With Zanetti coming on for Burdisso, Inter struck twice within five minutes on goals from Stankovic and Vieri. Valencia then woke up and went searching for goals of their own. After several close calls, Aimar pulled one back for the hosts. The shocking thing about this game was that from this point it went in a completely different direction than anything to indicate. Mancini brought Van der Meyde on for Vieri and he scored a goal a minute later. Adriano followed, Cruz iced the cake and all of a sudden it was a 5-1 win. After the match, Claudio Ranieri, then in charge at Valencia, stated that the only way to stop Adriano and the Inter attack was to turn the lights in the stadium off. I just remember kind of looking up at this whole thing in astonishment, as it was totally unexpected. (Sort of reminded me of being on the other side during our home loss to Arsenal the year before by the same scoreline.) Such is the beauty of the sport, though, and wherever they found it, Inter collected a historic win, one that the holdovers who will find themselves on the field this year (Zanetti, Cordoba, Burdisso, Stankovic, Materazzi, Cruz) can hopefully use to establish a comfort level on enemy turf.
I can’t wait to see what’s in the cards for Round 4….