Goals from strikers Sonny Anderson and José Mari enabled Villarreal CF to defeat AS Roma 2-0 and establish the perfect platform as the Spanish team sought to qualify for the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history.
Roma coach Fabio Capello welcomed back forward Vincenzo Montella, who had not played since 23 November, but was forced to do without influential captain Francesco Totti. Cristian Chivu, Olivier Dacourt, Daniele De Rossi, Vincent Candela and Marco Delvecchio were also unavailable.
In their most important European tie ever, the UEFA Intertoto Cup winners took maximum advantage of the absences, carrying out the majority of the telling work in the opening exchanges. The impressive Juan Riquelme had the first shot of the game, angling an effort wide of the far post in the seventh minute.
Roma created their first meaningful chance in the 19th minute, Traianos Dellas causing alarm with a dipping cross into the box. In the main, however, Villarreal were in command, mixing industry with invention to purposeful effect and Sebastián Battaglia went close in the 26th minute, firing over following a lively run from Riquelme.
The effort served as a warning because immediately afterwards the hosts took the lead as José Mari found Sonny Anderson and the Brazilian forward controlled his precise pass with aplomb and steered his shot into the near corner. The same player then almost doubled the lead, latching on to a ball into the box and testing goalkeeper Carlo Zotti.
It was 2-0 ten minutes before half-time. Completely unmarked in the box, José Mari rose high and twisted his body to apply maximum power to Roger García's corner, heading forcefully into the net. Provider almost turned goalscorer in the home team’s next attacking foray, García hammering a venomous shot wide by a matter of centimetres. Capello introduced Antonio Cassano for Montella after the interval but the striker was unable to prove as effective as he did in the 4-1 weekend defeat of FC Internazionale, when he scored one goal and had a role in three.
Riquelme it was who went closest in the second period, making Zotti tip over a fierce free-kick. The only chance of note created by the visitors fell to Daniele Coriva, who blasted over from close range late on. His team will need to increase their attacking potency in the return leg at the Stadio Olimpico on 25 March to keep their hopes in this competition alive.