By Graham Hunter at El Madrigal
Villarreal CF were held to a home draw for only the third time in eight European games at El Madrigal stadium this season by a powerful Valencia CF performance in the first leg of this evenly contested semi-final.
The two sides gave a thrilling display of open football in a match which, despite the lack of goals, was marked by the willingness of the more experienced visiting side to attack at all opportunities.
Valencia coach Rafael Benítez had taken into account that this was a UEFA Cup semi-final and also that Villarreal CF had several important scalps to their credit already this season. Throw in the local derby factor and Benítez - who had used several younger and less experienced players up to this point in the tournament - notably opted for a full-strength side.
Moreover, the first-choice formation were asked to play genuinely high-tempo, aggressive football and to try to take control from the outset. Instead of using two centre-backs, Roberto Ayala and Mauricio Pellegrino, plus full-backs Amedeo Carboni and Curro Torres as a regular back four, Valencia often relied on either three or even two at the back whenever they pushed forward.
That, plus the genuine confidence with which the Spanish league leaders went about their work, led to the most difficult opening to a home tie that Villarreal have experienced this season in either the UEFA Intertoto Cup or UEFA Cup. Mista shot high early on from a chance he would usually expect to convert and then, on 13 minutes, it took a marvellous save from José Manuel Reina to stop Vicente Rodríguez scoring.
Rubén Baraja's visionary cutback from the right touchline was dummied by Mista to meet Vicente's surge into the box. The winger lifted the ball over Reina's body but the goalkeeper somehow managed to raise himself slightly upwards in the midst of a full-length dive and the vicious deflection went over the bar. It was a first-class save.
From the corner David Albelda's shot was deflected wide and Villarreal breathed easy for a moment. Valencia had set the tempo but the home side now settled themselves, aware that the tie was never going to be won in a simple blitz of power play.
Juliano Belletti robbed Amedeo Carboni on the right touchline in the 16th minute and shot fiercely on goal for Santiago Cañizares to dive and save. Then moments afterwards a clever Sebastián Battaglia pass and an instinctive dummy from Juan Riquelme let Sonny Anderson in on goal but Cañizares's refusal to panic left the Brazilian running wide of goal and short of options.
By half-time the game had evened out into a display of fine, flowing football but Villarreal will have regretted that their best clean opportunity, José Mari Romero's header from Belletti's cross, went so far wide when the striker was unmarked. Neither team gave a millimetre of ground to the other after the break, with end-to-end play the product of a desire from each side to take a decisive result into the next leg at the Mestalla.
Headed against crossbar
Both Mista and Miguel Angulo caused Reina to save valiantly and Cañizares, although tested less often, punched clear from Javi Venta's cross under pressure. The breakthrough which Valencia merited was denied them when Vicente's corner - an example of how Valencia dominated in the Villarreal penalty area from crossed balls all night - was headed powerfully against the crossbar by Baraja midway through the second half.
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