Vicente Rodríguez’s late strike finally broke Celtic FC’s resistance at the Mestalla stadium to give Valencia CF a 1-0 victory in their UEFA Cup third round first-leg tie.
Backs to wall
Martin O’Neill’s men had their backs to the wall for much of the game but looked like holding out for an unlikely draw until Vicente drove home in the 75th minute following a short free-kick taken by Amedeo Carboni.
Before that a combination of dogged defending and Robert Douglas’s spectacular goalkeeping had frustrated the hosts, who saw chance after chance go begging. Giant striker John Carew will go home wondering how he failed to score after he had four second-half headers thwarted by either last-ditch clearances or Douglas.
Valencia just about shaded an even first period, with the lively Argentinian Pablo Aimar at the heart of most of their attacking play. Aimar forced Douglas into a fine low save in the dying seconds of the half before the Celtic goalkeeper was also called upon to make an even better stop from Juan Sánchez’s close-range effort.
But the fact that Valencia had to wait 45 minutes for their first genuine opening was testament to the quality of Celtic’s defending which included inspired performances from Dianbobo Balde and Johan Mjällby. On the break, Celtic could have snatched a shock lead in the 26th minute when Lubomír Moravcik’s cross found John Hartson whose low shot from six metres was kept out by Santiago Cañizares.
The second period was a different story, however, as Valencia lay siege to the visitors’ goal. As well as Carew’s personal duel with Douglas and the goalline defence, Aimar and Cristóbal Torres both had headers brilliantly saved while Sánchez had a low drive blocked by Balde.
In the end it fell to Vicente, who was only playing due to a dispute between coach Rafael Benítez and Argentinian playmaker Kily González, to deliver the decisive blow to give Valencia a slender advantage going into the return at Celtic Park stadium on 6 December.
O'Neill said he was delighted at his side's performance in holding a dominant Valencia to a 1-0 lead: "I am really pleased with the result and the enthusiasm we showed, especially considering the players we were missing out there. It was a shame we didn't manage to score, and that would have been a fantastic bonus, but we have got the second leg left and there is sure to be a great atmosphere back home."
The Celtic manager also highlighted the outstanding performance of goalkeeper Robert Douglas. "He was excellent and had a superb game," said O'Neill. "He has great confidence in himself and grew in stature after every save."
Valencia coach Benítez claimed a one goal lead was scant reward for his team's domination of the game, and felt that Douglas had prevented his side from extending their lead."We deserved more and in the end were unlucky not to win by a bigger margin," he said. "But every time we tried to increase the lead we came up against Douglas who got better as the game went on. I am looking to the experience of my players to carry us through in what is bound to be a difficult second leg in Glasgow."