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Copa del Rey: Villarreal's second-half magic eliminates Valencia

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Juan Carlos Garrido said he hoped the Copa del Rey matchup between Villarreal and Valencia would showcase football in the Valencian Community. This game did that, but not in the way anyone could have expected. Valencia abandoned their defensive 4-5-1 and went for an attacking 3-4-3 with Soldado in the middle flanked by Mata and Joaquin, clearly hoping to grab an early precious away goal. From the start Villarreal looked unsure of themselves; Catala (who surprisingly started instead of Mussachio) gave away a needless corner, and though nothing came of it, Valencia scored on their next attack. Banega's shot from outside the area seemed to confuse Juan Carlos--his attempt to parry the low shot failed miserably and the ball crept over the line.

That goal seemed to deflate the yellow squad, as well as their supporters. Valencia played confidently, with Bruno, Maduro, Banega, and Mathieu dominating midfield and consistently playing the ball forward to their front line in dangerous positions. As for Villarreal, attacks were few; Borja and Rossi seemed to be the only ones touching the ball in the Valencia half of the field. And in the 23rd minute Valencia struck again, central defenders Catala and Gonzalo failing to deal with a high ball while Soldado controlled it and finished clinically. Soldado and Mata both had chances to make it 3-0, while on the few occasions when Rossi or Ruben had the ball in a dangerous space, the other failed to understand the move and provide another attacking option. At the half, with Valencia ahead by two and Villarreal finding it difficult to string two passes together, one would have been forgiven for suggesting Garrido give up this match as a lost cause.

Whatever was said to the Villarreal players at the break, it had immediate effect. Within a minute of the restart Rossi broke down the left, crossed perfectly and Santi smashed the ball into the net. The comeback had begun, and astonishingly Villarreal's next attack resulted in a penalty--Ruben tripped by Stankevicius in the area--and Rossi promptly dispatched the kick to level the score. Valencia looked if anything more shaken than Villarreal had in the first half, and nearly gave up a third goal when Cani's ball skimmed across the face of goal, just missing both Rossi and Ruben as they tried to touch it into the open net. By now Emery had made his first substitution, bringing on Topal for Banega to shore up the defense and switch to four defenders at the back.

Valencia should have taken the lead with thirty minutes to go when Stankevicius headed over from a free kick when unmarked, and shortly after Gonzalo, who had just picked up a yellow card, made a fine slide tackle to deny Joaquin an opportunity to break in on goal. Though no one could have known it then, this was practically the last close call Villarreal's defense would face. And in the 63rd minute Villarreal, astonishingly, took the lead. The Valencia back four was split open-- first by Cazorla's pass to Cani, and Ruben received his pass and tucked the ball into the net, sparking wild celebrations.

But there was still nearly half-an-hour left to play, and Villarreal continued to press. Borja Valero and Bruno were tigers in midfield, Cani, Santi, Ruben and Rossi roamed forward with support from Angel and Capdevila, and Valencia was on the ropes. Ruben should have had what would have been a controversial fourth when Rossi (who everyone thought was offside) slipped the ball through to Ruben as the Valencia defense waited for the play to be whistled back, but Ruben fluffed the shot. And with fifteen minutes to go Santi's shot just missed both Ruben's sliding attempt to touch the ball into the net as well as the far post.

In the last 10 minutes Garrido took off Santi Cazorla, Ruben (who looked as if he may have tweaked a muscle late on--he was exhausted), and by the end seven defenders were on the pitch. One of them, Joan Oriol, found Rossi, who had enough energy to make one more run forward, and twisted, turned, twisted and turned again in the area before slotting the ball between the beaten defender and the near post. Villarreal were though, 4-2, and Valencia were done.

It may have been a costly victory, if Ruben's injury is a serious one, but it is nonetheless sweet. Most importantly, in the second half Villarreal showed the confidence, skill and above all killer instinct that is necessary to succeed at the highest level. Real Madrid awaits on Sunday and Sevilla in the next round of the cup, but that's for later. The bars of Vila-real will echo with happy customers tonight!