Juan Mata is determined to add the Europa League to Manchester United’s trophy-filled museum and return to European football’s top table by hook or by crook.
Just as Thursday’s last-16 second leg with Rostov was beginning to become jittery, the in-form 28-year-old turned home from close range to secure a 1-0 win that saw Jose Mourinho’s men through 2-1 on aggregate.
That triumph put United through to the quarter-final juncture of the Europa League – a competition nobody at Old Trafford ideally wants to be in, albeit victory would seal Champions League qualification.
If that carrot was not enough, the Europa League remains the only major UEFA trophy to have eluded the Red Devils – a set Mata is determined to finish this season.
“It became a while ago very important for us,” he said. “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’s 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.
“Obviously it was a disappointment on Monday that we went out of the FA Cup.
“It could have been another trophy in a season where we have already won two trophies, but we need to focus on what we are in.
“We are in the Premier League – obviously not playing for the championship – but playing for the third or fourth position, and trying to win the Europa League.
“It will be good for the museum in the stadium and for us to play Champions League next season.”
Five matches now stand between United and Europa League glory, while they have 12 Premier League games to secure a top-four finish.
Mourinho’s sixth-placed side currently sit six points off a Champions League berth, although boast two games in hand on Liverpool in fourth.
United can, though, ill-afford any more slip-ups having drawn 10 matches this season – a league high along with Sunday’s opponents Middlesbrough.
Relegation-threatened Boro parted company with manager Aitor Karanka in the build-up to this weekend’s match, potentially making a tough trip to the Riverside even harder for Mata and company.
“It’s very important, especially after the draw against Bournemouth at Old Trafford,” the attacking midfielder 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 will help or hinder us).
“For them it’s a new start and everyone is going to be really, really motivated and we have to deal with that.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera will miss the trip to Middlesbrough through suspension, while Paul Pogba will be absent with a hamstring injury sustained on Thursday.
It is set to be a testing final match before the international break and one when Mata’s incisive passing could be key to prising open the hosts.
Mourinho, maybe with that in mind, had been planning to take the Spaniard off before Thursday’s goal – “that gave me energy to score,” he said, smiling – as the attacking midfielder took his tally for the season to 10.
Many wondered whether Mata had a future at Old Trafford when his old Chelsea manager was appointed in the summer, but that goal haul underlines what an influential player he has been this term.
“I consider myself the same player with more or less the same qualities as I always had,” the Spaniard added.
“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.
“I have good games and bad games like everyone but in terms of how many games I have played and how many goals I’ve scored or assisted I’m happy about it.
“But in my mindset it’s never enough. I always try to improve every season.
“This season it has seemed to work.”