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United are craving a return to Europe's top tier: Mata

By Ian Herbert

It was over dinner, nearly 2,000 miles from home in Rostov, explains Juan Mata, that the sense of what Manchester United were missing really struck home.

The team's routine these past nine months, during the club's long and winding 15,000-mile tour of the continent to the Europa League final, has entailed the squad sitting down to dinner on Wednesday nights with the television set tuned to the Champions League.

"And, yes, we'd be wishing next season that we are there," the Spaniard relates.

Jose Mourinho's players were in the hinterland of north west Russia on the March night that Barcelona's extraordinary 6-1 comeback over Paris Saint Germain was beamed across the world.

But they have been feeling the same disconnect from Europe's elite since the autumn, when they broke bread in Odessa while Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund fought out a thrilling 2-2 draw.

"Yes, we'd be round the table together having something to eat and then the TV would be put on," Mata says.

Their chance to reclaim such heights now hinges, of course, on one night in Stockholm, where defeating Ajax in tomorrow's final will secure qualification for the Champions League, which they last exited amid group stage ignominy after defeat at Wolfsburg 18 months ago.

As a Champions League winner with Chelsea in 2013, Mata thought things would have been better than this when he arrived at Old Trafford the following year.

"Since I came here it has not been the greatest moment in the club's history," he admits.

"It's been a different approach and a new stage after Sir Alex Ferguson."

This feels like a very big moment in the clubs' journey through the post-Ferguson era. Win, reach Europe's top table again, and it will feel like a season of progress. Lose and Mourinho's first season - a League Cup to show - will have seemed like a failure.

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