Valentine’s Day, 2001.
Pablo Aimar made his debut for Valencia in a 0-0 Champions League group stage draw against Man United.
Those watching instantly fell in love with the young midfielder known as ‘The Clown’.
Johan Cruyff excitedly claimed: “He’s got the lot. Tremendous touch, takes up excellent positions, picks out his team-mates brilliantly and can make any pass.
“Aimar has everything needed to make an impact in Europe. Imagine how good he is going to be in a few years.”
For 90 minutes Aimar flicked, feinted and fooled his way through the mediocrity, standing out on a pitch containing Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and David Beckham, as well as new team-mates Gaizka Mendieta and Kily Gonzalez.
As first impressions go, it was some date.
The 21-year-old had arrived at Valencia from River Plate on the last day of January, becoming Los Che’s record signing in the process.
Hushed whispers of a ‘new Diego Maradona’ had turned into a crescendo of noise upon Aimar’s arrival in Europe.
Maradona himself said: “Valencia have taken the best player in Argentina.”
He’d spent five seasons in Argentina, playing alongside Ariel Ortega, another maverick unfortunate enough to be labelled the ‘new Diego Maradona’.
Like Ortega, Aimar’s arrival in Europe proved to be a false dawn.
There was a two-year golden spell in which Aimar won two La Liga titles, the 2004 UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup, while finishing one game short of a Champions League medal in 2001.
But a player of Aimar’s ability should have dominated at the top for a decade in the way that Zinedine Zidane did.
Niggly injuries had a large part to play in his decline.
Six seasons with Valencia were followed by two campaigns at fellow La Liga side Real Zaragoza, the last of which ended in relegation.
Five years at Benfica followed, in which Aimar won a Portuguese league title and four league cups, before El Payaso went rogue and joined Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta’zim for eight games.
From there it was a romantic return to River Plate and Estudiantes Rio Cuarto, the two clubs at which it all started for Aimar.
It says a lot about his pure technical talent that, even as recently as 2012, a 33-year-old Aimar was getting linked with a move to United, while Liverpool and Newcastle both considered taking him following Zaragoza’s relegation.
That move to United never materialised. However Aimar has still managed to have an impact on Jose Mourinho’s current side.
Nemanja Matic told Inside United that it was Aimar who forced him to switch from a no.10 to a defensive midfielder.
The Serbian said: “When I started to play football, my dream was to play as an attacking midfielder and to score goals.
“When I came to Benfica, the coach Jorge Jesus told me I won’t have the chance to play attacking midfield.
“We had many players better than me in that position, such as Aimar and Javier Saviola.
“So it was difficult for me and he said, if I want to play, then the no.6 position in defensive midfield was for me and I can become one of the best in the world.”
If Matic marks Goncalo Guedes and Daniel Parejo out of the game when United and Valencia meet in the Champions League, you know who to thank.
And if Lionel Messi guides Barcelona all the way to the final he’ll be doing so in the image of his idol Aimar.
The peak might not have been sustained, but Aimar’s influence at the very highest level is still being felt today.
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