VILLARREAL: Never before has the UEFA Cup been so important on Spain's Eastern coast.
In the past few years, since the enlargement of the Champions League, the UEFA Cup has lost part of its prestige in Spain. But the tournament has now been revitalised in Spanish eyes due to neighbours Villarreal and Valencia meeting head-on in the semi-finals.
The first leg of this fascinating clash will be played tomorrow, in Villarreal's tiny Madrigal Stadium with around 6,000 Valencia fans planning to make the 60km trip.
On paper, Valencia are clear favourites. They are joint top of La Liga with Real Madrid and playing well. In addition, they have far more Euro-experience than Villarreal, who are making their continental debut this season.
But Valencia will have a hard time in the Madrigal, where they have only won once in four visits.
As midfielder Ruben Baraja pointed out on Monday morning, they are going to make life very difficult for us.
Teammate David Albelda who was on loan at Villarreal in the 1998-99 season believes that the tie is completely fifty-fifty.
Valencia will make the short trip without South Americans Pablo Aimar and Fabio Aurelio, both still injured. Another absentee will be midfielder Jorge Lopez, ironically Cup-tied after playing in the Intertoto Cup for Villarreal last summer.
Villarreal are aiming to be only the second team to reach the UEFA Cup via Intertoto, following the example of Bordeaux in 1996.
They have been the revelation team of the tournament, eliminating such heavyweights as Galatasaray, AS Roma and last year's beaten finalists Celtic.
Villarreal are almost in as good form as Valencia. On Sunday they won 2-1 away to lowly Mallorca, a result which keeps them in comfortable 10th place. As defender Rodolfo Arruabarrena admitted, they know that the only way to be playing European football next season is to actually win the UEFA Cup.
Which is by no means out of the question. Coach Paquito Garcia, a club stalwart in charge for only two months now, has strengthened the defence by pairing the burly Sergio Ballesteros with rapid Argentine Fabricio Coloccini.
In attack, Paquito will continue with Sonny Anderson and Jose Mari Romero, whilst Juan Roman Riquelme and Roger Garcia will be running the midfield.
We need to score at least one goal on Thursday, said a confident Anderson on Monday. But even more important than that is not to concede a single away goal.
Newcastle United take on Marseille in tomorrow's other semi-final tie. dpa