For most Spaniards the return of Raúl González was like a royal homecoming and his majestic goal in the second half cancelled out Roberto Soldado’s tidy opener. It continued Valencia’s barren run of five draws and a defeat in the last six visits from German opposition and leaves a mountain to climb in Gelsenkirchen on 9 March. The hosts will be without Lukas Schmitz, however, after he received a second yellow card in the last minute.
The match had intensity and attacking fervour from the outset – both teams had been pawing the ground in impatience all winter for the return of top-level European competition. Felix Magath’s visitors started with more zip, more effective passes and a higher passing tempo. They should have been 1-0 up inside ten minutes.
Valencia tried to clear their lines but both centre-halves, David Navarro and Ricardo Costa, mistimed their push out of the penalty area and Benedikt Höwedes had time to tee up Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The striker took centre stage but fluffed his lines, barely making contact as the ball bounced harmlessly to the keeper.
The false impression was that Unai Emery’s decision to play three men in midfield, and ask his full-backs to surge up and down the touchline, was leaving the home side exposed. Instead, the pairing of Tino Costa and Éver Banega almost instantly combined to rob possession, use it smartly and create the opening goal.
Aritz Aduriz had dropped deep and when he received the ball he had room to use Jérémy Mathieu on the overlap; the French wing-back’s centre was exquisite. Soldado glanced past Manuel Neuer for his sixth goal in as many UEFA Champions League matches for Valencia and the Mestalla crowd rose as one to salute him.
Vicente Guaita joined the party ten minutes later, arching his back and clawing Peer Kluge’s dipping header over the bar. Then Miguel emulated Mathieu’s cross, but this time from the right, and Soldado’s touch was millimetres away from adding the second goal. It was a scintillating half.
That second goal was crucial, and within moments of the restart each side almost scored. The influential Banega skewed a shot across the face of Neuer’s goal but Raúl did not want to return to the country of his birth without a goal.
Seizing on another positional error from Valencia’s central defence he sent a right-footed shot towards the bottom corner but Guaita produced the save of his youthful career; it was danger delayed, not dealt with.
Shortly after, José Manuel Jurado sent in a low cross that allowed compatriot Raúl to nip in front of Navarro, control with one touch and score left footed with his next. It was a classy moment from a classy player. Only another marvellous save from Guaita, this time from Junmin Hao, saved Valencia from defeat.