Louis van Gaal
Van Gaal admits Saturday's defeat means a top four finish is now very difficult.Getty

Louis van Gaal admits Manchester United must now focus on the Europa League if they wish to qualify for next season's Champions League. After their 2-1 defeat to Premier League strugglers Sunderland on Saturday 13 February, United now sit six points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City, having also played a game more.

With just 12 games of the season remaining, van Gaal admitted after the defeat at the Stadium of Light his side may have run out of time to close the gap on City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City.

"Yes of course [today was a big backwards step]," he told BT Sport. "I think what I said before the game was we have to win and we didn't win. We can only blame ourselves. Two set plays, two goals. Sunderland had more aggression than us. We could not cope with that aggression and we could not keep the ball in our possession.

"[Finishing in the top four] will be difficult now because we give five points away, against Chelsea [where United conceded a last minute equaliser] and today, it's too much at this time."

"I think after this match it [Europa League] is the best route [to Champions League qualification] but it is not so easy because there are also a lot of very good teams participating."

United begin their Europa League campaign against Danish club Midtjylland on Thursday 18 February.

United were behind after just two minutes in Saturday's early kick-off when Wahbi Khazri's in-swinging free kick bounced through a crowd of players and into the far corner of the net. But Anthony Martial levelled the contest five minutes before half time, beating Vito Mannone with a delicate chip after the Sunderland goalkeeper had initially saved Juan Mata's effort.

Eight minutes from full-time, Khazri's corner was met by a thumping header from January signing Lamine Kone, with the ball finding the back of the net via a deflection from David de Gea.