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May 16, 2007

Rain falls mainly on Spain's final

It was supposed to be an example of free-flowing Spanish football, but as the rain poured down in Glasgow, the first all-Spanish duo to do battle in the UEFA Cup final, Sevilla and Espanyol, did their best, but ended up disappointing.

While Sevilla continued their march for an unprecedented treble of League, Copa del Rey and UEFA glory; they may not have impressed many observers.

Down to ten men after Moises Hurtado's sending off, Espanyol rallied, and Sevilla's attacking instincts seemed to leave them. Even the usually sound finishing of Freddie Kanoute looked to have deserted him. Minds looked elsewhere and eventually they had to rely on some quite outstanding penalty saves from Andreas Palop to see them through.

It is a mark of Sevilla's spirit that over the past few years they have had to sell their best players, yet still remain one of the best sides to watch in Europe. Jose Antonio Reyes left the Andalusians for Highbury back in 2004, while Julio Baptista (scorer of 38 goals in two seasons at the club) also chose to leave for Arsenal, via Madrid.

Yet such high profile departures have not hindered Sevilla's push for glory. They managed to retain most of the squad that demolished Middlesbrough 4-0 in last season's final and while they may look set to lose more stars this summer, including the coveted Daniel Alves, they have already shown their ability to bounce back from such departures.

Their fans were certainly in full voice, matched all the way by their Espanyol counterparts, and though the clouds above Hampden Park were as dark as night, at least they were enjoying the occasion. In front of 52,000 (and a watchful Spain coach Luis Aragones who had sat not three seats away from your correspondent on the plane), the players may have huffed and puffed their way towards the finishing line, yet there was plenty of late drama to keep them entertained.

Quickened by the steadily falling rain, the surface gave the players few favours. From the onset, Sevilla looked to dominate possession and get Alves on the ball as much as possible, while Danish international Christian Poulsen, employed in the midfield holding role, came across when the Brazilian made his trademark runs up the flank.

However, it was from the left side where Sevilla struck first. A long throw from Palop caught the Espanyol defence short, and Adriano beat his marker to the ball before racing through to slot home coolly. It was not against the run of play, although Espanyol continued to press for an equaliser, with effervescent skipper Raul Tamundo twice testing Palop's handling on the greasy pitch.

La Liga has a recent habit of turning average Premiership players into heroes and it was the turn of ex-Manchester City winger Albert Riera to showcase his skills opposite former West Ham and Tottenham hitman Freddie Kanoute.

Kanoute buzzed with flair and showed some good touches around the box, without ever testing Gorka Iraizoz in the Espanyol goal, but Riera stamped his name on the game by outclassing an out-of-position Alves to equalise, via a deflection. For once, Poulsen was napping, and Riera took full advantage to show the Man City fans what they had failed to see in the Premiership last season.

Another player to fail in England, ex-Birmingham striker Walter Pandiani, had been in spectacular form at the weekend, netting a 20 minute hat-trick against Real Madrid in La Liga, before a second-half implosion saw Espanyol lose 4-3. Surprisingly, the Uruguayan was left on the bench only to come on to rapturous applause in the second half.

Pandiani's goals have been a major catalyst in Espanyol's UEFA Cup campaign. Leading top scorer, miles ahead of the competition on 11, Pandiani has shown why his nickname 'El-Rifle' (the rifle) may be more deserving than it seemed at Birmingham and it was truly a shock to find his name not on the team-sheet.

While another talent to be left on the bench, Sevilla's Jesus Navas, came on to impress, Pandiani could not locate his finishing touch. Navas has the potential to be one of the best, but our esteemed Spanish expert Phil Ball was on the mark when he extolled the virtues of the player behind Navas, Brazilian Daniel Alves.

The full-back has been compared to Roberto Carlos in the way he marauds forward down the flanks and Espanyol had no answer to his raids down the right. While the English game rarely allows its full-backs to have such a patent disregard for defensive duties Alves is the key to Sevilla's fast paced attack. And it showed.

Everything went through him, and it was testament to the performance of Riera on Espanyol's left, that he had less of an impact in the second half.

Having attracted the attention of Liverpool, Barcelona and many other suitors, Alves' anonymous second half and particularly his horrible penalty miss in the shoot-out may drop his £15million price tag a pound or two. Still, he had previously looked a class apart from the rest and at 24 years old, is a genuine talent.

Once Hurtado had departed for a second yellow early in the second half, Sevilla were given the freedom of the pitch. They mustered over 20 shots on goal but couldn't break the Espanyol resistence. Riera may have popped up to almost give his side the lead with a wonder strike that was tipped onto the bar by the outstanding Palop, yet it was Sevilla who dominated.

Still, they couldn't see off Espanyol and they were made to pay. Extra time rolled on, and even after Kanoute's strike, the blue and whites kept coming. Jonatas (who had himself come on as a sub) blasted home an equaliser with only five minutes to send the tie into a penalty shoot out. This was incredible drama.

Goalkeeper Palop, who had scored in the last minute against Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16 to send Sevilla through, then stepped up as the hero, saving three of four penalties. The trophy was once again theirs, sending Sevilla fans, who were a credit to their side all the way through the game, into raptures.

Spare a thought for Espanyol coach Ernesto Valverde who represented the club both as a player and a manager. His latest outing with the current side matched his 1988 adventure for tension - where he lost a two-legged affair to Bayer Leverkusen on penalty kicks - but Valverde now has the dubious honour of being the first to lose the UEFA Cup final in both capacities. He can at least be proud of his team's spirit.

Indeed, while Sevilla gave the impression that they had other things on their minds (as they chase a treble, as well as their first domestic trophies in 45 years); the club who qualified for the competition by winning the Copa del Rey last season, narrowly avoiding relegation in the process, had more to aim for. Unfortunately for Espanyol, it proved too much.

On a night where Spanish clubs were guaranteed a new record tally of European wins (29) and also in the UEFA Cup (11), regardless who won, Sevilla became only the second club to hold onto the trophy, after Real Madrid in 1985 and '86, and they look good for at least a double even if they lose out to Barcelona or Madrid in the title race.

In the end, the constant rain probably played a part in dampening the football, but Sevilla have shown the rest of the continent that they are a force to be reckoned with by retaining the cup. How they'll cope without their big names, if and when they do decide to leave, remains to be seen. But on a rainy night in Glasgow, the trophy was proof that every cloud has a silver lining.


MAN OF THE MATCH: Andreas Palop. A few good saves early on, on a tricky surface, and then an amazing push onto the bar from Riera. Three out of four penalty saves to win the trophy for Sevilla may rival fellow Spaniard's Pepe Reina's heroics for Liverpool on the Euro stage. Christian Poulsen was everywhere for Sevilla, but Palop can't be beaten. At least not from the penalty spot.

FOOD WATCH: No Tapas, Paella or Tortilla on the menu, somewhat surprisingly, however there were a selection of sandwiches (all very English) and possibly the largest bananas known to man. Thankfully no haggis around either.

WEATHER WATCH: If there was ever an advert for holding a final containing two teams from the same country in their host nation, then this was it. Not only were there major roadworks all around the main Glasgow motorway causing travel chaos, but the rain arrived to dampen the spirits as well. Sunny Spain? Or sodden Scotland? You be the judge.


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