When I got the chance to go to Valencia in 2001, they were coming off the back of two Champions League final defeats in a row. I was coming to replace Gaizka Mendieta, who had left to join Lazio, so I knew there would be a lot of pressure on me. But when a big club like Valencia want you, you just can’t say no.
We had a lot of experience in our team, in terms of the players who had been in those Champions League finals. Sometimes people only see the negative side of losing a final, but you learn a lot from those moments; you begin to understand why you lost.
So we had a group of players who had learned a lot about themselves through those experiences, and the club added some youth into the mix. Players between 22 and 26 years of age who had stood out at smaller clubs; they gave the group added energy and confidence.
Rafa Benítez had arrived at the perfect moment. He was ready to go to the next level in his career. I remember talking to him for the first time. He told me that both he and the sporting director had wanted me. That gave me the confidence to feel like I belonged at a big club like Valencia. I had a good relationship with him, and I still do.
“Benítez helped us to understand football, and why situations came about. That helped us grow as a team, and individuals”
We started off a bit slowly that season, but you could already see what was brewing every day at training. We trained at a really high level of intensity – the same level we played at on match day – and you could see the team growing day by day.
Benítez is a coach who likes everything to be well organised, and he instilled that in the way we played and trained. We were solid defensively and we were really good on the counter, but he also got us playing good football and managing the different phases of the game very well.
If I had to highlight one thing Benítez (below) did for us as a team, it would be the way he helped us to understand football better. We started to understand how and why situations came about on the pitch, and that really helped us to grow both as individuals and as a team.
Perhaps the key moment that season was away at Espanyol. We were 2-0 down at half-time and the manager was under real pressure because we were on a poor run of form. Fortunately, I managed to get a couple of goals and we won 3-2. After that comeback, we went on to win the Liga title – it was the first time Valencia had been champions for more than 30 years.