HE HAS won Spanish Cups and Super Cups, played in two Champions League finals and commanded a world record transfer fee of more than £28m but, for Middlesbrough midfielder Gaizka Mendieta, success in this season's UEFA Cup would represent the biggest achievement of his footballing career.

While tomorrow night's last-16 clash with Roma marks another important milestone in Middlesbrough's progression towards the European elite, for Mendieta it will act as a throwback to his own illustrious past.

Five or six years ago, continental classics were the Spaniard's bread and butter. He was part of the Valencia side that lost to Real Madrid in 2000's Champions League final and was still at the Mestalla 12 months later when history repeated itself in the guise of a penalty shoot-out defeat to Bayern Munich.

His subsequent move to Lazio promised even greater success but, while Mendieta has gone on to spend a season with Barcelona and lifted the Carling Cup with Boro, his reputation has far outweighed his roll of honour.

As he prepares to celebrate his 32nd birthday at the end of this month, he accepts it is time to put that right.

"Winning the UEFA Cup would be an incredible achievement," said Mendieta, who had left Valencia by the time they won the fifth of their six Spanish titles in 2002. "If I was to win a European trophy with Middlesbrough, it would be the biggest thing I have done in football.

"I have done a lot of things in the past, but winning a European trophy would top them all.

"Big things do not come around very often in your career but, when they do, you have to be prepared to embrace them."

The same could be said of Middlesbrough. After two years of significant forward progress, this season had looked like marking something of a retrograde step when the club were battling against relegation a month ago.

Since then, though, five wins in the last six games have removed any lingering relegation fears and refocused attention on a twin assault on the UEFA and FA Cups.

Success in either would represent another step forward, cementing Boro's status as one of the most progressive forces in the English game.

Mendieta is particularly well placed to comment on their rise to prominence having contributed to a similar success story in Spain.

Valencia were no bigger than Middlesbrough when Mendieta left Castellon to join them in 1992 but, less than eight years later, the unfashionable outsiders were gate-crashing the Champions League final. Tellingly, the catalyst for their emergence was successive appearances in the UEFA Cup.

"When I moved to Valencia for the first time," said Mendieta. "They were a team in a very similar position to the one Middlesbrough are in now.

"They were playing in the UEFA Cup, trying to win the Spanish Cup, and hovering around the edge of the top six in the league.

"But things changed quickly at Valencia. The Champions League became four teams instead of two and that made a massive difference to the status and achievements of the club.

"They started to become big because they were playing every year in the Champions League. Eventually, they made two finals although they lost them both.

"Before they made that move, though, they kick-started everything by playing in the UEFA Cup. Before any of that, they were very similar to Middlesbrough.

"In that way, it is possible to compare the two clubs and wonder what might happen if Middlesbrough were to enjoy similar UEFA Cup success."

Before they can contemplate lifting the trophy, though, Steve McClaren's men must find a way past Europe's most in-form side.

Last weekend's 1-1 draw with Inter Milan might have ended Roma's winning streak, but their previous 11 victories still broke an all-time Italian record for back-to-back league wins.

Mendieta is understandably respectful of their strengths but, after experiencing Serie A at first hand, the midfielder has questioned the overall health of the Italian game.

While La Liga and the Premiership have tended to prioritise attack over defence, Serie A's leading sides have struggled to throw off their shackles.

"At the moment, I think the Spanish league is the strongest in Europe," said Mendieta. "If I had to rank the leagues in order, I would put La Liga at the top of the list, the Premiership second and Serie A third.

"I don't know why the Italian league has dipped a bit. There have always been good teams in Italy but, at the moment, the league is too physical. They pay too much attention to that side of the game and neglect other things.

"For me, Serie A is too tactical compared to either the English league or the Spanish one. That in turn means it is not as colourful."

Perhaps Mendieta's view is clouded by his experience. Despite being signed for a then world-record fee, he made just 19 starts for Lazio in a season that eventually ended in strife.

His last experience of Roma ended in a humiliating 2-0 defeat but, despite leaving Italy as an expensive flop, the Spaniard insists he has nothing to prove when he returns to the Stadio Olimpico next Wednesday.

"I played at Lazio for just one season," he said. "Did I enjoy it? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

"People have talked about my transfer fee but, for me, it was never a problem.

"My major problem there was that I was not playing regularly. That was the main issue I had to overcome and I do not know why it was the case.

"I talked with the manager about it, but there were a lot of things going on at the time (Mendieta's first boss, Dino Zoff, was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni halfway through the campaign). Why didn't it happen for me? The truth is I don't really know.

"But I certainly don't feel I have to prove myself. Time moves on and people move on. My main concern is doing everything I can for Middlesbrough."

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