By Graham Hunter in the Riazor
A second-half penalty from fit-again striker Derlei was enough to secure FC Porto a place in the UEFA Champions League final at the expense of ten-man RC Deportivo La Coruña.
Porto coach José Mourinho reinstated the free-scoring striker and his gamble paid off as the Brazilian, making his first European appearance since December, scored a second-half spot-kick. The 28-year-old's goal rewarded the Portuguese champions for intelligent defending and incessant pressure which proved too much for the home side, who had Nourredine Naybet sent off for two bookings.
Tension dominated the early development of the game and it soon became clear that Mourinho's team had come to La Coruna with the intention of stretching their Iberian neighbours' nerve - and above all closing down Juan Carlos Valerón. Costinha was given the job of policing Valerón and it was significant that Deportivo's playmaker did not make a meaningful contribution until almost half an hour had passed.
Benni McCarthy's exclusion for the newly-fit Derlei was a reference to the fact that the Brazilian finished last season's UEFA Cup as top goalscorer, and that the South African had not scored in nine games for Porto. Derlei's earliest act was to dramatise a Naybet tackle in the eleventh minute which brought a yellow card from Pierluigi Collina - and meant that the Moroccan was immediately suspended from the final.
Porto were playing their normal high-tempo, pressing game and Deportivo found that experience suffocating. In the 14th minute, Derlei began a mazy run which ended in Maniche's shot skidding threateningly close to José Molina's right-hand post. The nerves were gnawing away at the home side and the UEFA Cup holders were achieving their objectives.
Typically, it needed Valerón, the man who did so much damage to both Juventus FC and AC Milan in the previous rounds, to rouse his team. After 28 minutes, the elegant midfield player found space and flicked a perfect pass to Walter Pandiani, who volleyed over. At that instant, the referee's assistant raised his flag but the galvanising effect was apparent.
Sadly for Valerón he could not profit from the work which he himself had kick-started. As the ball rebounded from side to side in the Porto penalty box, he found himself in a surprising amount of space, right in front of goal, but carelessly volleyed wide. It was a key moment, precisely the kind which Javier Irureta's team had been converting in crucial moments against previous opponents.
Before half-time, Carlos Alberto was booked for a lunge at Víctor Sánchez and immediately after the break Porto so nearly created the away goal which they craved. Deco found freedom on the right-hand side and crossed for Derlei to stoop down and head against Molina's right-hand post. Then within minutes Deco's prompting led to Derlei's surging run, and César Martin and Molina needed to combine to prevent him scoring.
It was an indication that the two Brazilians were revelling in being reunited after Derlei's extended absence with a knee injury. Deco, in particular, had found time and space to orchestrate the game and the result was deadly for Deportivo. Having given the warning signs, the pair combined again to leave Porto on the verge of the final. Deco skipped around César on the edge of the box and the Spaniard's tackle brought the penalty which Derlei nervelessly converted.
Although Irureta's side fought back and threw everything into attack, there were two immediate indications that the luck was with Porto. First, Pandiani headed a bright Deportivo chance wide from a superb Alberto Luque cross. Then Naybet was sent off for a second bookable tackle, this time on Paulo Ferreira, and Deportivo's task seemed too tough.
Even when Diego Tristán added his skills the game would not turn Deportivo's way. One brilliant block in front of goal from Pedro Emmanuel prevented him from scoring before the substitute's subsequent free-kick curled half a metre wide. His desperation was summed up by a late booking for simulation in a forlorn attempt to earn a spot-kick.