Juan Mata has claimed that Manchester United are entering a "crucial" stage in their attempt to regain Champions League football after being dragged into a five-way battle for the final two spots.
Having slipped to fourth in the Premier League, and two points behind the surprise third-placed challengers Southampton, United's recent run of one win from four league games has left question marks over whether Louis van Gaal's team will secure a top-four finish this season.
With the visit of Leicester City to Old Trafford on Saturday heralding a run of fixtures during which United will play just one top-four rival -West Ham at Upton Park in 10 days' time - between now and mid-March, Van Gaal's team appear to have a chance to regain momentum in their pursuit of Champions League qualification.
Mata accepts, however, that United must rediscover their form of November and December if they are to maintaina make the most of a favourable run of fixtures.
"We know we are arriving into a crucial moment for the season," said the Spaniard, who joined United a year ago last Sunday.
"The last months, the last 10-15 games, are probably the most important. It's very important, not just to win the games against your big rivals, but also the weaker teams. If you want to be in the top four at the end of the season, you have to win almost every game.
"It doesn't matter if it's Leicester City or Manchester City. The next six or seven games are very important to get to a crucial moment in the season.
"It is going to be a fight until the end and not just between two teams - it will be between three, four, five teams.
"This is our main objective for this season - to play Champions league football again - because I think this club should always play in the Champions League.
United's recent run of poor results has coincided with an alarming drop in goals scored by Van Gaal's team, who have hit three goals in their past four league outings and were held to a 0-0 draw by Cambridge United in the FA Cup last Friday.
The club's style of play under Van Gaal has attracted criticism from fans, who chanted for a return to 4-4-2 during the recent win at Queens Park Rangers, but Mata insisted that the manager's tactical approach was right.
"The way the manager wants to play is attractive for fans and players," he said.
"I really like it; it's just matter of doing it how he wants. We've played very good football in some games, especially in November and December. We have to do it again."
Statistics suggest otherwise. Of the 12,062 passes made by United in the Premier League this season, 1,937 have been made back towards their own goal - 16.06% of their passes, the fifth highest tally in the top flight.
If that suggests United are overly cautious when it comes to constructing their attacks, the trend is backed up by the number of touches taken by players in their own half.
Only Liverpool and Swansea have taken more touches in their own halves this season than United.
The United of old were renowned for their thrusting attacks and willingness to set up camp in the opposition's final third, pinning them back with quick passing and slick wing play.
This season, however, it is a different story: analysis of passes in the final third shows that only Swansea, Sunderland, Hull and Aston Villa have made fewer passes in this area of the field. Surprise package Burnley top this table with 36.25 per cent.
At least, United aren't the worst culprits when it comes to passing the ball backwards. That unwanted record lies with Sunderland, with Tottenham doing it least often. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)
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