Little Spanish side Alaves stunned European football in the 2000/01 campaign. Their run to the UEFA Cup final was one of the most remarkable in the tournament’s history, and what was the club’s very first European campaign was just minutes away from ending with a trophy.
It all started with a tame 0-0 draw at home to Turkish outfit Gaziantepspor. The result was to set the tone for the Basque club’s run, with mediocrity at home juxtaposed with flair and brilliance on their travels. In Turkey, traditionally a tough place to prise a result from, Alaves performed brilliantly to come away with a 4-3 win and progress to the second round, where they were to face Norwegians Lillestrom.
A comfortable 3-1 win in Norway was followed up with a stuttering draw at home, but the damage to their opponents had been done. Alaves went on to face Lillestrom’s compatriots Rosenborg in the next round, and once more failed to win at home – a pattern was developing, but for as long as the Spanish side’s away form held, it could be overlooked. This time Alaves salvaged a 1-1 draw thanks to Javier Moreno, but in Norway the magic touch was once again evident as the Spanish raced into an early lead thanks to an own goal, before further strikes from Moreno and Jurica Vucko helped secure another 3-1 win. It was arguably their most impressive performance thus far against a side notoriously difficult to beat at the Lerkendal Stadion.
The fourth round was possibly the high point of the tournament, even though Alaves were to come within minutes of glory in the final, with a contest against one of Serie A’s leading lights on the agenda. After a tight first half against Italian giants Inter, Moreno put the Spaniards into a shock lead just before the break, but Uruguayan forward Alvaro Recoba’s fierce effort and immediate response ensured that it was level at half time. Another goal from Recoba and a third from Christian Vieri put Inter into a comfortable 3-1 lead. To all Europe it looked as though Alaves’ dream was over.
Now a team assembled for less than £10M, found themselves trailing 3-1 at home to one of the world’s greatest sides with 20 minutes left in the first leg of their tie. Then, Oscar Tellez struck home a free kick and Ivan Alonso netted an equally impressive goal to level things up in an incredible turnaround. Quickly and incredibly the worm had turned and had Cosmin Contra converted a guilt-edged chance, striking his shot against the post, then the game could even have been won.
Yet still, with Inter in the driving seat after the first 90 minutes, no-one could have predicted what happened in the second leg. Jordi Cruyff, son of the Dutch legend Johan, handed Alaves an opener with less than a quarter of an hour remaining in the San Siro to make it 1-0; but still just one goal would have sent the Italians through. With Inter furiously pushing and fighting for their UEFA Cup future, Ivan Tomic doubled Alaves’ lead to clinch one of the great European scalps and send the Spaniards into the quarter-finals. Slowly but surely, Alaves were starting to believe.
La Liga rivals Rayo Vallecano provided the opposition in the quarter-finals, and it was a tie which also saw Alaves claim their first home win in Europe, a brilliant 3-0 success, ensuring that they progressed despite a defeat in the away leg; their first European loss on their travels.
In the semi-finals, the Spanish side crushed Germans Kaiserslautern 9-2 on aggregate, winning the home leg 5-1 and the away tie 4-1, setting up a final against mighty English giants Liverpool, a sending a message in the process.
For the Reds the evening in Dortmund’s cavernous Westfalenstadion presented the club with an opportunity to add to their illustrious European history; for Alaves in contrast it was a chance to start a new era and write a fresh chapter.
The Spanish did not enjoy the best of starts with Marcus Babbel and Steven Gerrard giving Liverpool a 2-0 lead before Ivan Alonso pulled one back to hand Alaves hope. No sooner had that hope arrived though than veteran Scottish midfielder Gary McAllister made it 3-1 at half time; Alaves were seemingly dead and buried.
But if there was one thing Alaves had learned in their European run it was not to give up and their fight was soon evident when Contra set up Moreno to pull the score back to 3-2; then the same player scored from a free kick to level the match. The tension in Dortmund was palpable and Europe was witnessing a thriller. Liverpool came back though and when Robbie Fowler struck a late goal to make it 4-3, it appeared as though the English side may have just seen off the plucky Spanish. But true to form, Alaves fought back and Cruyff, who had enjoyed a four-year spell with Liverpool’s bitter rivals Manchester United, headed home a memorable equaliser from a corner in the dying minutes to take the game to extra-time.
The 2001 UEFA Cup final was played using the golden goal rule and Alaves had to suffer victory snatched away when a goal was disallowed; then the Spanish were reduced to 10 men when Brazilian forward Magno was dismissed. And when captain Antonio Karmona too was sent off with three minutes left, Alaves’ prayed for the lottery of penalties to decide the game. But down to nine men, the Spaniards finally succumbed from the resulting free kick as right back Delfi Geli turned the ball into his own net. So near and so far, this was one of the great European adventures, despite their dramatic defeat.
What happened when the spotlight faded? We look at the key figures ten years later.
Clinical striker Ivan Alonso continued to play for Alaves after their relegation from La Liga in 2003 before moving to Real Murcia, where he became the team’s main forward. Having helped the club win promotion to the top flight, they were subsequently relegated the year after and Alonso moved on to Espanyol. The Uruguayan switched to Deportivo Toluca in Mexico this summer.
Centre back Antonio Karmona was the leader of the Alaves team which made it all the way to the UEFA Cup final, but it was also his intervention which led to Liverpool’s decisive fifth goal in that game. Having pulled back Czech midfielder Vladimir Smicer, reducing his team to nine men, the subsequent free kick was turned into Alaves’ net by Delfi Geli. Ironically, Karmona was a Liverpool fan.
Having continued to serve Alaves with distinction until their relegation to the Segunda Division, clocking up nearly 300 appearances, Karmona moved back to former club Eibar, playing for the Basque side for two seasons before retiring.
Jordi Cruyff continued to play for Alaves until their relegation before moving to Espanyol. After a season in Catalonia however, injuries caught up with the former Manchester United man and he was without a club before moving to Ukraine and Metalurg Donetsk. In the Ukrainian capital, Cruyff found himself playing bizarrely in defence, before moving on to manage Maltese outfit Valetta.
In between moves, Cruyff found time to set up a fashion label, and is now the Director of Football at Cypriot outfit AEK Larnaca.
After leading Alaves to qualification for the UEFA Cup again, Jose Manuel Esnal "Mane" was fired in 2003 following a defeat to Valencia. The club were subsequently relegated and Esnal was left waiting for an opportunity to return to the game for two years before becoming Levante coach. He guided the Valencia-based outfit into La Liga and then moved onto Athletic Bilbao back in his native Basque country. Mane’s last club job at Espanyol a year later saw him sacked with the club lying in the relegation zone.
He has been out of work since departing in 2009, with the UEFA Cup final run undoubtedly the highlight of his career.