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Thursday 8 December 2016

'Bad week behind us' says Mata

Spaniard aims to kick on with win over struggling Stoke as United seek their fourth victory in a row

Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata has praised the influence of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic as they seek another win against Stoke tomorrow
Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata has praised the influence of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic as they seek another win against Stoke tomorrow

Manchester United's Europa League victory over Zorya Luhansk is unlikely to live long in the memory, but Juan Mata believes it was "key" as Jose Mourinho's side continue their recovery from a bad week.

It has been a topsy-turvy start to the season at Old Trafford, with Community Shield glory and three successive Premier League wins followed by three straight defeats in all competitions.

Now, though, United are back on a winning run, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's close-range header on Thursday wrapping up a 1-0 triumph against Zorya and third successive victory.

It kick-starts their Europa League campaign ahead of Stoke's league visit tomorrow, with Mata quick to underline the importance of beating the relatively unknown Ukrainians after losing their Europa League opener.

"This was a key win," he said. "After losing in Holland (against Feyenoord) we needed to win here and now we can look forward to Sunday's match against Stoke.

focused

"After the bad week we knew that we had three games at Old Trafford.

"We have won two of them and obviously we are really, really focused on winning the last one before the international break."

United will look to close the six-point gap to Manchester City against out-of-sorts Stoke, who look set to be in for another tough afternoon as, if expected, Ibrahimovic starts a third straight match.

Thursday's performance was the latest to belie his advancing years, with the qualities of the striker, who turns 35 on Monday, recognised by his team-mates.

"We know that when Zlatan is playing up front, he comes to create great assists and great passes," Mata said.

"We have to run behind him because we need depth in the game. We tried to do that in the first and second half. He gives a lot as a striker and he gives a lot when he comes to play as a midfielder as well. We have to take advantage of that."

Mata is also taking advantage of his own opportunity after suggestions that Mourinho's arrival would lead to a summer exit. Despite becoming a fans' favourite at Stamford Bridge, game-time became limited after the Portuguese's return to the Chelsea hot-seat and the midfielder left for Old Trafford in January 2014.

But things seem different this time, with Mourinho this week calling United a "very good natural habitat" for Mata.

"Yeah, I felt good, I enjoyed being on the pitch (against Zorya)," the Spaniard said, h aving interchanged position with his team-mates regularly.

"It is good to play with players like (those that played against Zorya), and with Paul (Pogba) coming forward as well with quick football.

"We tried to do that because that is the way we can play with this team and we can succeed with this."

Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could return for United in tomorrow's clash with the Potters. Left-back Shaw became ill after recovering from a slight groin tear so will need assessing, while attacking midfielder Mkhitaryan is building up fitness after a thigh complaint.

Phil Jones is the only definite absentee with a knee injury, while captain Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial are among those pushing for starts after making impacts off the bench in the Europa League clash with Zorya Luhansk.

Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes insists the individuals at the centre of the Daily Telegraph's ongoing corruption scandal must be named in order to avoid all football bosses being "guilty by association".

Hughes has watched on as the allegations have been published and says the "debate" over who the unnamed managers are should be brought to an end.

Asked if football is rotten, he said: "Clearly there's a worry that that's the perception that will be taken by a lot of people."

He added: "I think if there is evidence that certain individuals have been involved in things they shouldn't have been, then I think it's important those guys are named because, if they're not, then everybody is guilty by association just by virtue of being a manager or a coach or involved in football.

"If there is any wrongdoing, then clearly those people have to be named and then everybody else is seen in the correct light."

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