Juan Mata believes the Europa League could be central to Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League as the club await the draw for the quarter-finals on Friday.
The United midfielder is confident the club can still finish in the Premier League’s top four this term but insists they are taking the Europa League “very seriously” as an alternative route back into the Champions League as well as the chance of another trophy.
United will discover who they face in the last eight when the draw is made in Nyon at lunchtime on Friday. Furious at the frenetic fixture schedule United have faced this season, United manager Jose Mourinho will be eager to avoid a pairing with Turkish league leaders Besiktas and another trip to Istanbul, having already faced Fenerbahce there in the group stage, and perhaps a dangerous Lyon side.
Beyond that, Schalke, one of the biggest names left, are currently eleventh in the Bundesliga, Spanish outfit Celta Vigo 11th in La Liga and Genk seventh in the Belgium top flight. Anderlecht, top in Belgium, and Ajax, second in Holland, complete the draw.
“It [the Europa League] became very important for us a while ago,” said Mata, whose 70th minute goal against FC Rostov on Thursday night helped smooth United’s passage to the quarter-finals. “I still think we have the chance to get to the Champions League through the Premier League. I still think we can win a lot of games and get into the third or fourth positions. But it [the Europa League] is another chance for us and we will take it very seriously. It’s very important – it could be one more trophy and it means we play Champions League.”
Having lost ground on the top four with a 1-1 draw in their last league outing at home to Bournemouth, Mata is adamant United can ill afford to drop points against Middlesbrough at the Riverside on Sunday. Aitor Karanka was sacked as Middlesbrough manager on Thursday and Mata expects the North East club will have a point to prove.
“It’s very important, especially after the draw against Bournemouth at Old Trafford,” he said. “We know we have to add points in the Premier League because our rivals are winning games. We need to win games and hopefully we can do it on Sunday. It’s going to be tough because they have changed their manager.
“You never know [if it helps]. For them it’s a new start and everyone is going to be really, really motivated and we have to deal with that.”
Mata’s goal against Rostov was his 10th of a season in which he has confounded expectations to become a key part of Mourinho’s side. Sold by Mourinho to United when they were at Chelsea, Mata’s future at Old Trafford appeared bleak but he is happy with how things have materialised.
“It’s good. To be honest, I think it's a good number of goals,” he said. “It’s March and there are still a lot of games to go and hopefully I can add many more. I have scored 10 and 10 in the last seasons so I’m already on that number and hopefully I can surpass it with some more goals before the end of the season.
“I am not a striker. I consider myself a midfielder or an attacking midfielder. Goals have always been a big part of my game. It’s one of the things I can do to help my team-mates – goals, assists and offensive work. Obviously I have to defend as well and run for the others, but goals have always been a big part of my game.
“I consider myself the same player with more or less the same qualities as I always had. It’s always about reaching your confidence level and physically being ready for every game. I’m happy with that, and after that trying to help my team-mates. This season, I’m scoring goals and I’m happy with that but obviously I want more.”