Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal is targeting a victory in Sunday’s Manchester derby to take a big step toward securing third place in the Premier League, which he says would surpass the club’s pre-season expectations. United have won five successive league matches to not just take a firm grasp of a Champions League berth, but move above local rivals Manchester City and into third place. That would mean avoiding a perilous qualifier and instead going straight into the lucrative Champions League group stage. And that, Van Gaal, explained, is the major motivation for victory when City visit Old Trafford on Sunday.

“I dream of [victory], every player shall dream of the victory,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “I have to think with my staff and the players already a lot of days how we have to beat Manchester city. You are sitting in that process to beat your next opponent.

“You want to win because it is a big step in the table. When you win, third place is then reachable and a month ago nobody was thinking about that, besides, me of course. The third position in the table is good because then you are certainly qualified for the Champions League and it would be better than our pre-season goal.”

After tinkering with personnel and systems throughout the season, Van Gaal has come upon a successful formula in recent weeks. And there look unlikely to be significant changes on Sunday. Robin van Persie has returned to training, but Van Gaal stressed that he didn’t think the Dutch striker was yet fit to play. The same assessment was provided for Luke Shaw, while record signing Angel di Maria may have to again make do with a place on the bench.

Manchester United have lost four consecutive derbies to their local rivals, but it is they who unquestionably come into this latest meeting in superior form. Level on points with Chelsea at the top of the Premier League on New Year’s Day, Manchester City have taken just 15 points from 11 games since. On Monday they went down 2-1 at Crystal Palace to seemingly deliver the final blow to their already slim title chances. Pressure has come on manager Manuel Pellegrini as a result, but the Chilean is adamant that the team is not in disarray.

“I understand that we are not having the away results we want,” he said in his press conference. “2015 is not a good year for us, before that we were the best team playing away. We must continue doing the things we are doing well, because we are not a mess, we are doing a lot of things well. Of course we must improve because we are not getting the results that we need.”

And, despite City currently trailing United by a point in the Premier League standings, Pellegrini insists that a win on Sunday is not an absolute necessity to secure third place.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s a very important game, because it’s a derby and because we are very close on the table, but I don’t think that after that the team that wins the game can think that it’s all finished in the season, you have six games more that you must try and win.”

City’s preparations have been hampered by several injury concerns. Wilfried Bony will miss out once more with ankle and knee problems suffered before the Palace defeat, while fellow forward Stevan Jovetic also remains sidelined. Meanwhile captain Vincent Kompany faces a late fitness test after picking up a hamstring injury at Selhurst Park.

Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EDT

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra