Thursday’s Manchester derby will be a ‘make or break’ game for both clubs, Ander Herrera argued.
Should Manchester United, who have not lost in the Premier League since October, overcome City at the Etihad Stadium, they will leapfrog Pep Guardiola’s side into the Champions League positions. United will be one point behind Liverpool in third with a game in hand.
After 23 unbeaten matches, it would be hard to argue the derby is not the pivotal moment of Manchester United’s season. Should United beat City in their own stadium, as they did last year, their fate will be theirs to decide.
Winning the Europa League, which Jose Mourinho has long seen as Manchester United’s best route to the Champions League, would become a secondary option.
“It is going to be the game of the season,” Herrera said. “We are one point behind them. If we win, we have the chance to finish in the top four. If they win, it is going to be very difficult.
“Is it make or break? Probably. Whoever wins is not going to lose a lot of games or make mistakes after that. It’s us or them. It is going to be key.”
Not since October and a 4-0 rout at Stamford Bridge, have Manchester United lost in the league and they meet a City side coming to terms with the fact that Guardiola’s first Premier League season will end trophy-less.
Should United win, Manchester City might finish outside the Champions League places, which for a club that has invested so heavily in players, infrastructure and management, would be galling.
“I don’t know the expression ‘winner takes all’ but it is going to be a massive game,” said Herrera, who brilliantly set up Anthony Martial’s opening goal in Sunday’s 2-0 win at Burnley a week after neutralising Eden Hazard in the victory over Chelsea.
“We are in a very good moment,” he added. “We respect them but we are doing a lot of good things and we have to show it on Thursday.”
Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic will take no further part in the season, Juan Mata, who has not played for a month because of injury, wrote on his website that he hoped to return before the end of the campaign, although the Manchester derby will come too soon.
Of all the players in Mourinho’s squad, Herrera is probably the least confident that Manchester United will reach the Europa League final in Stockholm.
Their semi-final opponents, Celta Vigo, may not be in great form – their only win in their last four games in La Liga has been against Tony Adams’s Granada.
However, they have beaten Barcelona and drawn with Real Madrid in their own Balaidos Stadium and Celta have a strong emotional pull for Herrera – his father, Pedro, played for the club and served as its general manager.
As someone who played for Athletic Bilbao in the 2012 Europa League final that saw them beaten by Atletico Madrid, Herrera also knows cups cannot be taken for granted. Asked for his motivation in reaching this year’s final, Herrera replied: “I want to take that knife out of my back.”