The Spaniard has been the man to make way for Mkhitaryan but could do with a chance to show he still has plenty to offer
"Rooney, Rashford, Lingard, Ashley Young, Memphis Depay... that’s a position where we have lots of players so that will not be another problem, to chose a player to play."
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Whether it was a deliberate slip of the tongue or not, Juan Mata's name was not the first to come to Jose Mourinho's mind when he was pressed on potential replacements for Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Monday.
The Armenian wide man has been a revelation over the past couple of weeks but the ankle injury he sustained in the 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday means Mourinho will have to choose between his multitude of options in attacking midfield slots for Wednesday's trip to Crystal Palace.
And only a few weeks on from being stand-in skipper and a near shoo-in for a starting shirt, Mata now finds himself looking to overcome the odds to cement a future for himself at Old Trafford.
It is not the first time this season Mata has been left scrapping for first-team recognition. Back at the beginning of the campaign he managed to forge his way into Mourinho's plans by proving he was made of the right stuff to play a part for United. After the misgivings of many regarding Mata's worth to the Portuguese boss, who had overseen his exit from Chelsea in 2014, the Spaniard was given the benefit of the doubt by his manager thanks to some early-season showings which underlined his ability to play the United way.
Whereas Jesse Lingard offered a pacy alternative as a natural wide player and Wayne Rooney's position as a club icon won him the right to play his way out of the team, Mata's neat, skilful variation found him a niche neither rival was able to offer.
But Mkhitaryan's recent transformation from persona non grata to match-winner extraordinaire has seen Mata play the role of fall guy. Many United fans still count the 28-year-old as one of the first names on their preferred teamsheet, and the thought of him missing more games than he plays will not go down well. Yet it is easy to see how he could be squeezed out of the United picture if he cannot seize every chance he gets over the busy Christmas period.
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Mata does have the bonus of being a flexible attacker who can play on the right or in the middle of the line behind the main striker, but in both spots there is huge competition for places. Marcus Rashford, Lingard, Young and Mkhitaryan can all be counted as adversaries for the right-wing slot, while Rooney and Paul Pogba stake significant claims for the No.10 position.
Mata's days as a certain starter are now long gone, and it seems to be a situation he has managed to come to terms with. His performances this season have certainly displayed the sort of character Mourinho will have been looking for. But the idea that he is now second choice at the very best may take some getting used to, and that is the danger now that Mkhitaryan has hit form and been given his head by the manager.
His decline from two-time club Player of the Year to substitute under Mourinho at Chelsea was dramatic. But having won the heart of the mercurial manager once already this season, he now has arguably an even bigger task on his hands to prove he still has something to offer in a Manchester United shirt.