2001 proved to be a pivotal year in the history of Leeds United.
The Whites’ progression to the Champions League semi-final saw them move within two games of their first major European final in 26 years, creating an ultimatum for manager David O’Leary. With his side fighting for a top three position in the Premier League, he had to make a decision on what to prioritise towards the end of the season.
Whereas Leeds had already won three top-flight titles in England, they had never triumphed on a continental level in arguably the biggest knock-out competition for clubs in the world. Therefore, O’Leary understandably made the Champions League the Whites’ preference with La Liga side Valencia standing between them and a showdown with Bayern Munich.
A moment in time – Leeds United vs Valencia, 2001
The first leg between the two sides ended as a stalemate at Elland Road, leaving it all to play for at the Mestalla. Leeds’ preparation for the tie was hampered by a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal in the Premier League, a result which would have significant consequences at the end of the season.
Despite this domestic setback, the Whites would have been quietly confident of producing a famous performance in Valencia considering the fact they boasted a side that included the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka. However, it turned out to be a disastrous 90 minutes which led to heartbreak for the club’s supporters.
Second best in all areas to their Spanish opponents on the night, Leeds fell behind after just 15 minutes in controversial circumstances as Juan Sanchez appeared to deliberately bundle the ball past Nigel Martyn using his arm. The forward then doubled his side’s lead with a superb strike from 25 yards before Gaizka Mendieta added a third to secure Valencia’s progress to what was their second consecutive Champions League final.
O’Leary’s side’s disappointing end to the season was compounded by a failure to qualify for the competition as Liverpool pipped them to a third-placed finish on the final day of the season. In hindsight, it could be argued that by losing to Valencia, Leeds missed out on becoming a powerhouse in English football.
Financial ruin instead followed for the Whites which culminated in the club being relegated from the Premier League in 2004 and to League One three years later. Although Marcelo Bielsa could be on the verge of bringing them back to the top flight this season, it would require a miracle for Leeds to get back to the position they found themselves in 2001 – on the verge of European glory.
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