Valencia put two straight years of European heartbreak behind them by clinching their first Liga title in 31 years at the end of the 2001-02 season.
After losing the 2000 and 2001 Champions League finals to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, Los Che stifled their way to the title under the pragmatism of new manager Rafa Benitez. Despite only scoring 51 goals and drawing 12 of their 38 games, they finished seven points clear of second-place Deportivo la Coruna thanks to a league-best defence that conceded only 27 times.
Despite making only one transfer, Real Madrid dominated the summer back pages again after bringing in Zinedine Zidane from Juventus for a world-record fee of €77.5m. However, La Liga also lost a midfield specimen with Gaizka Mendieta’s €47.7m move from Valencia to Lazio. Meanwhile, Barcelona beefed up their attacking options around Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert by signing 19-year-old Argentine phenom Javier Saviola from River Plate.
Benitez took the hot seat at Valencia after guiding Tenerife to promotion in 2000-01, while Barcelona’s dramatic final-day qualification for the Champions League under Carles Rexach in the previous season saw the caretaker tag removed from his title.
The relegated trio of Real Oviedo, Racing Santander and Numancia were replaced in the top flight by Real Betis, Sevilla and Tenerife.
Valencia opened the season with a 1-0 win against Real Madrid at the Mestalla, but it wasn’t the catalyst that Benitez would have hoped for. His side drew nine of their next 15 matches as they initially struggled to adapt to a 4-2-3-1 formation that in hindsight, was ahead of its time.
Benitez was painted as out of his depth, particularly after a loss to Deportivo at Estadio Riazor in December. But one week later, he orchestrated a dramatic comeback from two goals down to beat Espanyol 3-2 that marked a turning point in los Che’s season.
Late goals became their specialty, with Espanyol again on the wrong side of a title-defining moment with three games left in the season. Valencia were down a goal and a man at the half in Catalonia, but Ruben Baraja’s two-goal coming-out party in the second half secured the win. Real Madrid’s defeat to Real Sociedad gave los Che a three-point lead in the table, which they never relinquished.
That loss was the centerpiece of a hollow finish to the league season for Madrid. With deep runs in the Champions League and Copa del Rey stretching them thin, Vicente del Bosque’s side won only one of their last five games to slip to third, after camping out in the top two spots since December.
This was the height of the Galacticos era - where Real Madrid added a world-class attacking player to their ranks each summer. However, Zidane didn’t initially mesh as smoothly with Luis Figo and Guti as some might have hoped. Shoehorning attacking talent into the starting XI worked out well in their winning run through Champions League knockout stages, but was more exposed during the weekly grind of la Liga.
Barcelona struggled for consistency all season, winning more than two games in a row only once and threatening to drop out of the top four until the final three weeks. They boasted two of the division’s four top scorers in Kluivert (18) and Saviola (17), but it was a transitional year for their midfield and defence. The remnants of Louis van Gaal’s title-winning sides were feeling their age, while first-time starters Xavi and Carles Puyol weren’t yet at the peak of their powers.
Deportivo finished 2001 on top of the table, but sputtered after the turn of the new year, dropping as low as seventh. However, with eventual Pichichi winner Diego Tristan on fire with 21 goals, the Galician club would steady themselves for a second-place finish.
Newly promoted Real Betis and Sevilla would finish comfortably in the top half, with the former even qualifying for the Uefa Cup. However there was no such luck for Tenerife, who looked lost without the steadying hand of Benitez and plummeted straight back down to the Segunda, along with Las Palmas and Zaragoza.
DIEGO TRISTAN - 21 GOALS
The Spanish forward enjoyed his best season at Deportivo with 21 goals, making his name as one of the most complete forwards of that time.
MOST EXPENSIVE TRANSFER
Juventus to Real Madrid
KEY MOMENT OF THE SEASON
Valencia’s 2-1 win against Espanyol on Matchday 36 - coming back from a goal and a man down at the half. This put them on top of the table for good.