Sixteen years ago, Real Madrid hosted an English team in the second group stage of the Champions League. Yes, for those of you under 25, the Champions League used to have two group stages, where instead of a group stage going straight to knockout rounds, the Champions League had a second group stage, of four groups, to eliminate half the teams instead of a round of 16. Anyway, Madrid played host to an English team that wasn’t Arsenal or Manchester United. They hosted Leeds United.
The 2000-01 Champions League marked the peak that the early 2000s Leeds teams would reach. Leeds famously lost in the semi-finals to Valencia and their manager, some guy named Rafa Benitez, 3-0 on aggregate after drawing 0-0 at Elland Road.
Looking at a clip of highlights of that game is a blast from the past. Players like Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Lucas Radebe, etc, all lined up in the all-yellow kit to take on the inspiration for Leeds United’s home all-white kit, the Blancos of Real Madrid.
And yup, lining up in defense for Madrid that day was none other than Aitor Karanka, who, you may have heard, has been linked with the manager vacancy at Leeds after being sacked by Middlesbrough. While it’s impossible to know what someone else is thinking, I somehow don’t believe that Karanka imagined his post-playing career would take him to Northeast England, or that speculation would have him linked with the manager’s job at the team that he was playing against that day in 2001.
Yeah, Leeds lost that day to Real Madrid, 3-2. So what. That first goal scored by Alan Smith? Are you kidding me?!?!?!
At the time, Leeds fans thought that the club would be mentioned in the same breath as Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool as the top clubs in the land. But missing out on 3rd place by one point, and the Champions League spot that went with it, was the beginning of the end for Ridsdale and David O’Leary. While Leeds became a punchline in the next few years, the memories of playing at the Bernabéu will be with those who witnessed it forever.
Let me know when any other Yorkshire club plays in Madrid in a competitive match. I’ll wait.