Juan Mata could not conceal his disappointment after Valencia CF crashed out of the UEFA Champions League to FC Schalke 04 on Wednesday. After what he termed a "sad exit", the Spanish international targeted a berth in next season's competition as his remaining ambition for the campaign.
Valencia were on course to reach the last eight for the first time since 2006/07 when Ricardo Costa gave them the lead with a 17th-minute header, putting them 2-1 up on aggregate. They then subjected their hosts to some stylish, controlled football, but never really threatened to score a second goal before Jefferson Farfán kick-started a 3-1 comeback win by equalising five minutes before the interval.
For Mata, the 23 minutes that elapsed between the two first-half goals were the key to the outcome. "We could have scored a second goal, but instead they ended up equalising," he said. "In these types of knockout games, if you aren't clinical you can forget about advancing. It's a sad exit, a painful exit for us. They scored their goals at crucial moments in the game.
We just have to keep working hard now and fight for third place in the Liga; that's all that's left for us now this season. We want to remain in third spot and to qualify for the Champions League directly; that's the club's objective."
Even after going 2-1 down when Mario Gavranović struck seven minutes after the break, Unai Emery's charges knew an equaliser would be enough to see them through on the away-goals rule. Manuel Neuer made a superlative save from Aritz Aduriz and Valencia pushed men forward without reward right up until the final whistle.
Wide midfielder Pablo Hernández said: "They went 2-1 ahead and we had several chances to equalise but we couldn't take them and so this is a bitter defeat. The third goal came right at the end of the game and it doesn't matter whether it was 2-1 or 3-1 as we were going out in any case."
Hernández felt Farfán's free-kick leveller was the moment when Valencia let the tie slip from their grasp. "It looked really good for us when we were 1-0 ahead," he explained. "We weren't able to keep the lead and so Schalke deserved to go through. We were controlling the game at 1-0 up and there wasn't much danger coming from them. It was a foul from us that got them back into the match.
It's a crying shame that we've exited the competition and incredibly disappointing."
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