Second-half goals from Diego Forlán and captain Antonio López nearly brought Club Atlético de Madrid a smash-and-grab 2-1 win against Valencia CF at Mestalla, but David Villa levelled in the 82nd minute to strengthen Unai Emery's hand ahead of the UEFA Europa League quarter-final decider next Thursday.
The level of Valencia's scintillating creative play belied the absence of eight key first-team men. Atlético stepped up to the plate, notably when Simão crashed a shot off the post in the 12th minute plus when he beat two men and rolled a crafty effort through the legs of César Sánchez only for it to trickle along the goal line just before the break. However, the visitors were often swamped.
Everything except Valencia's final touch was convincing. Rubén Baraja released Pablo Hernández early on but even though the winger skipped round David De Gea he stumbled and could not capitalise. Atlético's keeper went on to save well from Villa and David Silva, but it was thanks to an exquisitely timed tackle by Tomáš Ujfaluši as Villa was about to pull the trigger that Valencia did not have a merited lead by the break.
However top-level football perpetually tells one particular story – take your chances or pay the price. With half an hour left the home side were caught over-exposed up field. Winger Jordi Alba, standing in at full-back, failed to cut out Sergio Agüero's run from the halfway line and it teed up an open goal for his strike partner Forlán.
Valencia proved in the last round that they are made of stern stuff and responded admirably. Atlético's lead lasted eight minutes until Manuel Fernandes crashed a 25-metre shot into the bottom right corner of De Gea's net. The finale saw joy and pain all round; López headed home to make it 2-1 to the visitors and Bruno Saltor, suspended for the return, thumped a volley off the bar before Villa got the all-important late leveller.