Rangnick offers lifeline to ‘very popular’ but barely-seen star as Man Utd boss makes ‘realistic’ admission

Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani, Luke Shaw Villarreal v Man Utd May 2021

Ralf Rangnick has insisted that Juan Mata remains a “very popular” figure in the Manchester United dressing room, despite his lack of action.

The Spaniard arrived at Old Trafford in 2014 and is therefore one of the longest-serving players in the team. However, his time as a crucial player in the ranks went some time ago.

In fact, Mata’s game time began to dwindle in the 2019/20 season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Last term, the 33-year-old made only 18 appearances, including nine in the Premier League.

This season, though, he has played just four times and is yet to help Man Utd in the top flight. Furthermore, with the one-year contract extension he signed last summer expiring in June, his future looks away from Old Trafford.

Two of Mata’s four outings this term came in the Champions League group stages. Still, he is unlikely to feature in Tuesday’s last 16 second leg against Atletico Madrid.

Interim Red Devils boss Rangnick told a pre-match press conference: “He is very popular in our group.

“I think everybody likes Juan a lot and he can still play on this level, but it’s a question of competition.

“We have quite a few players for those midfield places and I will also have to decide between five or six players for tomorrow’s game.”

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Indeed, Man Utd host Atletico following the 1-1 draw between the sides in the Spanish capital.

Rangnick has urged his side to avoid conceding first and, on the other hand, go and get the crucial second goal in the tie.

Substitute Anthony Elanga rescued the Red Devils a result in Madrid and is again in contention to start on Tuesday.

But Cristiano Ronaldo is in good form once again after his hat-trick against Tottenham. He will be itching to write the latest chapter in his Champions League story.

Rangnick talks Man Utd priorities

Ralf Rangnick, Man Utd v Tottenham March 2022

Man Utd are nevertheless not one of the favourites to win the Champions League this season.

They are also on the back foot in the race to qualify for next season’s competition by securing a top-four Premier League finish.

Arsenal sit one point above them in fourth and have three games in hand to potentially cement their place.

Asked if winning the Champions League and therefore qualifying that way would be a better option than the domestic route, Rangnick offered a balanced answer.

“Well, it doesn’t matter which way we would qualify,” he said. “The question is what is more realistic? Tomorrow it is Champions League and obviously we want to try everything we can to win the game tomorrow.

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“Hopefully we’ll be in the last eight. Even if we manage to do that, there are a few other good teams.

“In three weeks we have the next Premier League game against Leicester at home and we will still try to push to win the next games.

“We’re fully aware that we should not be dropping points anymore, right now Arsenal is in good shape so for us it’s clear that we have to look after ourselves.”

United will join Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Real Madrid in the last eight of the Champions League with a win.