Chris Smalling believes ending the season as Premier League runners-up is the “bare minimum” for Manchester United.
With swashbuckling Manchester City boasting a 13-point lead and game in hand, it is little wonder that manager Jose Mourinho has already conceded the title to their near neighbours.
United will keep plugging away in hope more than expectation but finishing second is the main goal away from their Champions League and FA Cup tilts.
Having never finished lower than third in the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson, they have failed to finish higher than fourth since he retired as a champion in 2013 – a side Smalling was part of.
“I think obviously we’ve been second for quite a while and that needs to be our bare minimum,” the United defender said of the Premier League.
“The fact we get to play Liverpool at home as well I think is a big advantage.
“If we can separate ourselves from Chelsea and Liverpool and work our way up then we can do that.
“But I think that’s our (goal) first and foremost.”
United were overtaken by Liverpool on Saturday but regained second spot thanks to Sunday’s 2-1 comeback win against Chelsea.
Romelu Lukaku and substitute Jesse Lingard secured an important victory for United, who head to Crystal Palace next Monday before Jurgen Klopp’s Reds arrive at Old Trafford.
“I think being able to beat a rival, it’s almost like a six-pointer because of how close we are,” Smalling said of the Chelsea win.
“The confidence just breeds (confidence) and we’re ready for the next one.
“I think considering sort of how close we are in the table, I think it gives them a massive blow and us a lift.
“I think all of us, especially that top five, are probably all going to be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
“These are huge games and I think the fact we play a lot of our rivals at home is going to be a big factor because of our home form.”
United will need to start better against Liverpool than they did on Sunday, with Smalling pointing to their second-half improvements as the way to go.
Aggression and determination was visible from the whistle as Mourinho’s recently-criticised defence shored up markedly after the break.
“Overall, I think we do have a good record and have over a number of years,” Smalling added.
“Obviously the Newcastle game was a setback, but there is a reaction to the fact that when you play for the biggest clubs and you lose a game there is that big sort of negative reaction.
“But we’re players that are ready for it and to put on performance the next game.”