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UEFA Champions League knockout football is back at the Mestalla after a four-year absence and what better way to mark that return than with a highly anticipated fixture between two of the teams who surprised many in the tournament's group phase.
Despite a home loss to Manchester United FC, Unai Emery's Valencia pushed the Premier League side all the way before finishing second in Group C, all the while demonstrating their scoring prowess with 15 goals. Schalke, meanwhile, topped a section that contained last year's beaten semi-finalists Olympique Lyonnais and Portugal's SL Benfica to set up a round of 16 encounter that seems likely to be closely fought over the two legs.
For Valencia forward Roberto Soldado, the game represents a huge challenge that he and his team-mates must face up to from the off. "We know [Schalke] are a team who won't make anything easy for us. We must focus on our own game and style. This is the most important match of our lives and we must go for the jugular in order to try to take [control of] the tie," said the 25-year-old, scorer of five goals in five group stage appearances.
The former Getafe CF and Real Madrid CF striker appreciates it will be hard to pick a winner. Schalke have a positive record at the Mestalla with two draws from two previous visits, the first in a 1996/97 UEFA Cup quarter-final the German side won, the second in the UEFA Champions League group stage a decade later.
"This game is so important that we must erase the statistics from our minds and just go out and give our all. We're playing at home and I'm sure if we continue on the path that got us here it will serve us well. We have the confidence and we need to use that."
The Liga club – who won two of their three Group C home matches – will once again look to their vociferous fans to help them see off the challenge of a Schalke outfit featuring former Madrid favourite Raúl González. "Our fans will be sure to make a huge effort. They always respond well and I'm certain they'll help us again to get the right result."
The fixture is Raúl's first back on Spanish soil since his departure from Madrid last summer but Soldado played down the significance of his return – even if he was actually playing alongside the ex-Spain attacker when he registered his first UEFA Champions League goal for Madrid, a late winner against Olympiacos FC in a 2-1 victory in September 2005 in which Raúl had opened the scoring.
"Schalke are not all about Raúl," said Soldado. "They have many dangerous players, especially up front, and we'll have to be careful. The subject of Raúl is just one more in a game where we will be looking to get a good result in order to go to Germany with a good chance to qualify."
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