By Graham Hunter at the Mestalla
Spain needed an own goal from Norwegian defender Henning Berg five minutes from time to secure a hard-earned 2-1 victory in the first leg of the play-off for the final tournament of UEFA EURO 2004™.
Valencia CF's Rubén Baraja was the architect of the winning goal in his home stadium, pressurising Henning Berg as he attempted to reach a pass from substitute Joaquín Sánchez and forcing the centre-back to turn the ball into his own net.
Baraja came close to adding a third in the closing stages, but Norway, having performed creditably in front of a noisily patriotic crowd, have a real chance of overturning the odds in Oslo on Wednesday thanks to Steffen Iversen's vital away goal.
Before the match Spain coach Iñaki Sáez had warned his team about overconfidence and their tendency to squander chances, a trait which forced them into the play-offs after automatic qualification had eluded them thanks to defeat at home by Greece. Within 15 minutes his words had proved prophetic.
Spain start brightly
Spain started the match as if they intended to swamp Norway, and had their first sight of goal in the eleventh minute, but Baraja's shot was just too high. The home side again might have taken the lead a minute later as Fernando Torres cleverly intercepted a back-pass but, with only goalkeeper Espen Johnsen to beat, the young striker dragged his chip wide.
Spain continued to press forward and had another golden opportunity in the 13th minute as Raúl González rounded Espen Johnsen only to see his shot cleared off the line by Henning Berg. Baraja collected the loose ball but, with the goal at his mercy, sliced his shot wide.
The visitors had not threatened at all, but Norway's urgent movement of Iversen and Roar Strand to support lone striker Tore André Flo suddenly paid dividends in the 14th minute. Flo and Strand competed for the ball with Iván Helguera and the latter's looping header dropped over Carlos Marchena and Carles Puyol to leave Iversen perfectly placed to drive past Iker Casillas.
It was his second goal in consecutive matches against Spain, the striker having also scored the only goal of the game when the two sides met in UEFA EURO 2000™, but on this occasion the lead lasted a mere six minutes. Although the shock strike silenced the capacity crowd it had the opposite effect on the Spanish players and the next few minutes were frenzied, before the home side finally broke through.
José Reyes's curling right-wing free-kick was met by the head of Raúl, the striker applying the finishing touch with a deft flick. Spain might have taken the lead two minutes later, as Joseba Etxeberría's cross was met Reyes, but Espen Johnsen produced a fantastic save to keep out his volley.
The game was becoming increasingly open, with Reyes causing constant problems for the Norwegian defence, while Baraja and David Albelda gave the centre of the Spanish midfield a calm assurance. Before half-time both Reyes and Albelda saw shots fly just wide, although Norway might have retaken the lead as Flo's diving header forced a fine save from Casillas.
Both goalkeepers excelled in the second half with Casillas forced into a spectacular save on the hour to keep out Martin Andresen's drive. But Espen Johnsen was the busier of the two, saving Baraja's free-kick, Puyol's drifting cross under the bar and, outstandingly, again from Reyes to keep the visitors in contention.