The Valencia CF fans chanted the name of Rafael Benítez but the coach praised his victorious players.
By Graham Hunter in Valencia
Valencia CF fans chanted the name of Rafael Benítez long after his side had secured their place in the UEFA Cup final with a 1-0 semi-final second-leg victory against Villarreal CF, but the coach was quick to deflect the praise on to his players.
"My name? I didn't notice," Benítez joked, before conceding: "OK, it was nice to hear such acclaim for all of us but it's important to praise the players. They are the ones who decide games and although the coach is important, it wasn't me out on the pitch tonight. If the fans did sing my name it's only because my players are doing well."
A first-half penalty from Mista, their hero of the season, put Valencia in their first UEFA Cup final and brought an outpouring of joy around the Mestalla. Around 10,000 fans refused to leave Calle Suecia outside the ground for well over an hour until each of their team's players, and coach Benítez, had individually stood on the balcony to be acclaimed in turn.
Mista, scorer of 19 league goals for the Primera División leaders this season, revealed how his pride in seeing the fans get involved almost equalled the emotion of reaching the club's first European final since losing back-to-back UEFA Champions League showpieces in 2000 and 2001. "Walking out before the game to see a full, noisy stadium made me so proud," the 25-year-old said. "This is a time to celebrate - but first thing on Friday we have to get back to work and concentrate on beating Sevilla FC in order to win [the title]."
Benítez proved the value of squad rotation and trusting in his fringe players as his side stayed fresh throughout a testing game while Villarreal, in their 18th European match of a long season, ran out of steam. "This was as tough a tie as we expected it to be against a side which is never easy to defeat," continued the Valencia coach. "The truth was that we had plenty of chances which we could, and should, have converted - just as in the first leg. That way, the fans could have been celebrating earlier and none of us would have had to suffer right until the last moment."
Benítez's reference was to a nervous final 15 minutes, following his team's last good chance when David Albelda's magnificent run and shot ended with José Reina making arguably the save of the night. One breakthrough in that last quarter of an hour could have put the visitors through on away goals but despite a late rally, Villarreal could not beat Santiago Cañizares and defeat proved an especially sore experience.
Dejected coach Francisco García said: "I thought the penalty decision against us was harsh. It is disappointing to come this far only to lose." But Villarreal president Fernando Roig said: "In the morning we will congratulate ourselves for having got this far - right now we are in pain."
Valencia captain Albelda suggested the supporters had a key part to play in the victory. "This was a real test of our hunger for victory given how hard we are working to try and win the championship," he said. "But we passed the test and the emotion of hearing our fans so happy is an incredible sensation."