Smalling: 'Time to stand up and be counted'
Defender Chris Smalling is determined to stop Manchester United missing out on the Champions League for just the second time in 21 years.
Life after Alex Ferguson began with a bump as two years ago the Red Devils failed to qualify for European football's top competition for the first time since 1995.
David Moyes paid for that failure with his job and reports continue to suggest that successor Louis van Gaal could follow suit after a difficult Premier League campaign for the Old Trafford club.
United have slipped three points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, whose Champions League hopes are boosted by the fact they also have a game in hand.
Europa League glory offers another route to the the continent's top table and, having been part of Moyes' faltering side two years ago, Smalling is determined to get there by hook or by crook.
"I think it is (felt by the players) - it was the first time," the 26-year-old said ahead of tonight's Europa League last-16 first leg against Liverpool.
"We've still got a lot of games to play in the league. Obviously we have another route in the Europa League to make sure that doesn't happen again.
"We're all striving forward and looking forward to make sure that doesn't happen for a second time." Liverpool find themselves in a similar predicament due to their own topsy-turvy campaign, which leaves them a place and three points worse off than United in sixth.
It adds extra motivation as the old foes prepare to do battle in continental competition for the first time.
"No matter whether it's the league or cup, it's a game that we all look forward to," Smalling said.
"Especially after the disappointment (of losing 1-0 at West Brom) on Sunday, this is a game we're all looking forward to. It's one where we need to stand up and be counted."
Smalling was speaking at the training ground alongside manager Van Gaal, who was caught by microphones asking the defender "you have learned again better who I am now?".
The centre-back nodded and agreed during a rather awkward exchange at the end of a press conference during which the manager refused to get carried away by the grudge match.
Van Gaal says that, unlike supporters, he does not see Jurgen Klopp's men as the "enemy", preferring instead to focus on how to beat them - a level of detachment Smalling believes can benefit them.
"I think it's good that the manager sees it from a tactical viewpoint," he said.
"We work on the training pitch and before the game on our tactics on the training pitch before the game so we don't get caught up in the occasion. But when you step on over that white line, the emotion is what drives you on, and hopefully that brings out a better performance.
"I think quite often in these games the first 20 minutes are often quite frantic, but you want to get the upper hand on your opponent, whoever you're playing against. Say for example me against the striker, very early I want to get a challenge in and try to dominate.
"They are games that us players look forward to and I'm definitely looking forward to it."