London — Juan Mata believes it is imperative Manchester United win their final two Premier League games to make sure they are in peak condition for their Europa League final against Ajax.
United’s 2-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday means that they can no longer finish in the top four and leaves the Europa League final in Stockholm on May 24 as their last chance of securing Champions League qualification.
United visit Southampton on Wednesday before entertaining Crystal Palace on the season’s final day. While there is nothing riding on the games, Mata says he and his teammates cannot afford to take them lightly.
"Now it’s time to play two good games to close the Premier League and reach the Europa League final in the best shape that we can," the Spanish midfielder wrote on his blog, published on the United website.
"It’s true that the calendar has been hectic over the last two months, but we have to push hard now to try to win the three remaining games. We really want to."
United manager Jose Mourinho has made it clear that the Europa League is now the club’s sole focus, having rested players at Tottenham and in the 2-0 loss at Arsenal that preceded it.
He made eight changes to the team that overcame Celta Vigo in the Europa League semifinals for the defeat at Spurs, which left United seven points below the top four in sixth place.
Mourinho says he already has an idea of the team he would like to align against Ajax and he must now strike a balance between resting his key players and making sure they are fit and firing for the trip to Sweden.
He has already revealed that Daley Blind would be rested for Wednesday’s rearranged game at Southampton, with the versatile Dutch defender having started six of United’s past seven matches. Matteo Darmian, Ander Herrera, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford could all come into the starting XI, having started on the bench at Spurs, while Marouane Fellaini returns from suspension.
It is not known if Paul Pogba is in contention to play after he was given compassionate leave following the death of his father.
Southampton, who won 2-1 at relegated Middlesbrough on Sunday, are in a straight shootout for eighth place with West Bromwich Albion, who lead them on goal difference.
They are also out to avenge their 3-2 defeat by United in February’s League Cup final, which left a bitter taste after what would have been the opening goal was ruled out for a dubious offside.
As well as missing out on the League Cup, Southampton will be unable to improve on the previous season’s league placing — sixth — for the first time in eight campaigns. But captain Steven Davis believes an eighth-place finish will still represent an acceptable season.
"If we go on and finish the season strongly and get ourselves in that eighth position, then we can look back at it and say it’s been an OK season," said the Northern Irish midfielder.
Southampton manager Claude Puel is likely to restore several of his first-team players after making a number of changes at Middlesbrough. Top scorer Charlie Austin could start after making his comeback from a five-month absence with a shoulder injury as a substitute at the Riverside Stadium.