By Graham Hunter at the Mestalla
Valencia CF qualified for their third European final in five seasons by defeating Spanish neighbours Villarreal CF. An early penalty for the Primera División leaders, won and scored by Mista, set them on their way to a semi-final second-leg triumph which means they will meet Olympique de Marseille in the UEFA Cup final in Gothenburg on 19 May.
It was Valencia coach Rafael Benítez who had sprung all the surprises with his team selection – leaving flu victim Vicente Rodríguez and fit-again Pablo Aimar on the bench with the seldom-used Xisco Muñoz and Mohamed Sissoko given the chance to reach for glory. The early story was, that as has perpetually been the case this season, Benítez's judgement had been sharp. Unfazed by the change to seasoned personnel and the introduction of raw youth, Valencia absolutely bombarded José Reina's goal.
The Villarreal keeper and his defenders had to be at full stretch not to lose the game in the opening ten minutes such was the ferocity of the home side's attacking. First Curro Torres pushed the ball right on to the head of Rubén Baraja, running in front of Reina, but the Villarreal keeper just managed to punch the chance away from the midfield player's reach. Moments later David Albelda's cute pass allowed Mista to skip around the diving Reina – but Quique Álvarez intervened to kick the ball off the line.
By the time the penalty came Valencia had created two further opportunities with a low shot from Curro Torres and a blistering effort by Baraja which fizzed past the post with Reina beaten. Then, after a deceptive few minutes of calm, Juliano Belletti's awkward lunge on Mista forced referee Terje Hauge to point to the spot. The striker duly took the kick himself and slotted a left-foot drive between Reina's full-length dive and the goalkeeper's left-hand post.
It could have signalled a collapse for under-pressure Villarreal but the best chances for the remainder of the half fell to the visitors. Within three minutes of the goal, a José Mari Romero challenge caused the ball to bounce down and up over the Valencia crossbar after a touch by Santiago Cañizares. Sebastián Battaglia's pass then allowed José Mari to get clear in the box, only to be blocked by a brave one-on-one save by the goalkeeper.
Villarreal's most dangerous moment came when Brazilian Sonny Anderson ran free and struck a fine right-foot shot which was heading just under Canizares' crossbar until the goalkeeper made a top-class save. José Mari headed straight into the arms of Cañizares when he could have scored and the striker had time to control and swivel before shooting in the 38th minute, only for the Spanish international to intervene again.
After the break, Villarreal struggled to get quality possession - in fact within four minutes of the restart the game could have been settled as Miguel Angulo's right-wing pass was controlled and set up on a plate for Xisco. The 23-year-old went one-on-one with Reina but the former FC Barcelona custodian, who has saved eight penalties this season, again proved unbeatable.
Reina produced the same result from Albelda's run and stunning drive in the 72nd minute but needed a flailing miss in front of goal from Mista four minutes later to keep Villarreal's hopes alive, but Valencia tightened their grip to seal their progress.