Playing in Europe key to Spanish hopes for Mendieta

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The Independent Football

Gaizka Mendieta has set his heart on taking a Carling Cup winners' medal later this month - and a ticket back to Europe.

The 29-year-old Middlesbrough midfielder surprised many people when he agreed a five-year deal on Teesside during the summer after making his name at Valencia, Lazio and Barcelona and sampling Champions' League and World Cup football.

However, in no small part down to the Spaniard, Steve McClaren's side will run out at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on 29 February against Bolton for the first trophy of the 2003-04 season in England.

Victory would cap a remarkable personal turn-around for a player whose career had found itself in the doldrums following his £28.9m move to Rome and subsequent loan spell at Barca. Mendieta's rehabilitation in England has provided McClaren and Boro with just reward for their ambition in luring him to the north-east.

But he admits that a lack of European football has left a huge hole, and that is something he intends to remedy.

"When you come and you watch the European games on television, of course you miss it because it's a big competition that every player wants to play in," he said. "But I knew that before I came. Since I arrived at Valencia, they played always in the Uefa Cup and after that, in the Champions' League.

"I said when I arrived at Middlesbrough that any club that wants to be an important club or a big club should be in Europe where the big teams are. We've got very good players and experienced players that have played in Europe in other teams. I think the people are just thinking about the title, but we can get into Europe as well."

Boro claimed their big day out in South Wales with a 3-1 aggregate win over Arsenal in the semi-finals after Tuesday night's 2-1 triumph at the Riverside Stadium.

It was Mendieta's pass which allowed Bolo Zenden to fire the Teessiders in front, but his overall display helped keep the Gunners on the back foot.

The impact he has had in his first five months in England has been immense, and he has quickly picked up a sense of just how important the cup run has been to his latest club.

"I can imagine because in Valencia when we won the first cup, Valencia had gone for 25 years winning nothing," he said. "We won the cup, so I can imagine something similar.

"It's fantastic. It's very good for me to arrive at a new club and reach a final or have the possibility to play in a final, so I'm very happy.

"You always hope for that, but you never know what's going to happen. You always try your best to get that kind of game, so I'm happy with that."

A winners' medal and a return to European action would do Mendieta no harm at all in his bid to stay in the international picture with Spain.

"It's one of the most important things in a player's career because you have to be in Europe to play against the biggest teams in Europe," he said. "You have to be there and try to fight against them and show the things you have."