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By Graham Hunter in Villarreal
Villarreal CF can feel the forces of history and destiny propelling them into their first UEFA Cup semi-final - against their regional rivals Valencia CF.
With local bragging rights as well as a place in the 19 May final in Gothenburg at stake, it is easy to understand why Villarreal striker Sonny Anderson believes the club have never played a more important match. The tournament's joint-top scorer, tied with Alan Shearer and Mateja Kezman on six goals, has been in magnificent form for a team who are making their bow in major European competition after qualifying through the UEFA Intertoto Cup.
The Brazilian said: "The truth is, you only have to look at the total excitement of our fans to realise the significance of this game to them. Many of us believe this is the most vital game in Villarreal's history - not only three games away from winning the only European title we have ever won, but against Valencia too."
Anderson only arrived in the summer from Olympique Lyonnais, but as scorer of the first goal in the 2-0 second-leg win against last year's finalists Celtic FC that earned a 3-1 aggregate triumph and semi-final place, he has more than proved his worth. He said: "I am very happy with my contribution to the team up until now and I am satisfied to have got this far with Villarreal.
When I signed last summer, neither I nor the majority of the players ever thought we could achieve this." As for the match itself, he added: "The ideal thing for us would be to score early so that we grow in confidence. But it is also vital, in my view, for Villarreal not to concede a goal."
Villarreal have taken superbly to UEFA club competition, eliminating European stalwarts such as Galatasaray SK, AS Roma and Celtic. But Valencia, leading Real Madrid CF in the Primera División title race, are powerful and far better briefed on their rivals than previous European opponents have beem.
Valencia captain David Albelda insists the added spice of the local-derby atmosphere will prove more important than the fact this is a UEFA Cup semi-final - and he should know, having previously played for Villarreal until his 1999 switch.
Albelda said: "I am quite sure Villarreal's president, Fernando Roig, will be offering his players a huge financial bonus for beating us. There is a good feeling between our two clubs but
I am confident that they will be even happier beating us than they would be beating, say, Real Madrid. Equally I am sure, or I hope, that Villarreal would rather see us than Real Madrid winning La Liga."
Certainly, despite Valencia fighting for honours on two fronts, there is no question of anything less than full effort on Thursday. Albeda said: "I think that the key will come in the fact that these games are physical and mental battles as much as pure football. But we are in the semi-final of a European tournament so I do not believe that we can save ourselves for games to come."
Villarreal captain Quique Álvarez agreed, adding: "This is a unique moment and we must give everything. Everyone has great pride in us for what we have done already - now we have to reach for the stars."
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