Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho dropped the strongest hint yet that he will entrust Ander Herrera to fill the void left by suspended record signing Paul Pogba for the derby against Manchester City during the Champions League win over CSKA Moscow.
Herrera started the Group A match which the three-time winners needed just a point from to qualify for the last 16 as group winners alongside Pogba, who is banned for the next three domestic matches after being sent off against Arsenal.
Despite Alan Dzagoev opening the scoring on the stroke of half-time for the Russian visitors, United marched into the knock-out stage thanks to two second half goals in the space of 66 seconds from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.
Upon United completing the turnaround Herrera was immediate withdrawn and replaced by Scott McTominay on 66 minutes, suggesting that with Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick both expected to miss the visit of the Premier League leaders the Spaniard is leading the race to start this weekend.
The ex-Athletic Bilbao schemer was one of Mourinho's most reliable performers during his maiden campaign at Old Trafford, making 50 appearances in all competitions – only Pogba and Rashford made more outings – and started key games such as the EFL Cup final against Southampton and Europa League final against Ajax.
But since the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea, Herrera has slipped down the pecking order and though he has made 20 appearances this term just a quarter of those have come from the start in the Premier League.
Reports had suggested that Herrera's decline in the eyes of Mourinho was linked to a confrontation between the manager and the player at the end of last season after a friend of the Spain international with close links to Celta Vigo – at the time United's Europa League semi-final opponents - was invited to visit the club's training ground.
Speaking in September, Herrera insisted he remains on good terms with Mourinho despite his lack of opportunities. "I feel as important as I did last season," he said, according to The Daily Telegraph. "I am a team player and I always say that and if the manager decides to keep me on the bench I will be ready.
"I said that last season and it is the same now. I know how lucky I am to play for Manchester United. I will try to enjoy every minute I have on the pitch. I want to win titles and feel part of the team and feel important and I really do feel important because the manager makes me feel important."
Mourinho and Herrera's relationship was reportedly further inflamed after the latter criticised United's players for lacking passion during the recent Premier League defeat at Huddersfield Town.
But the two-time Champions League winner moved to quash those suggestions that he had endured a breakdown in communication with Herrera by insisting he "loves" his players.
"I was not speaking with Ander Herrera anymore? Pfft!" he said in November, according to Goal.com. "Ander Herrera is the kind of guy that I have to push away because he wants to speak with me all the time! I don't know where you get these kinds of stories but, yes, I am happy. I love my players. You try to create a mystery because of my reaction after Huddersfield, but there is no mystery about it."
This Sunday [10 December] represents a key juncture in Herrera's career at United. His contract is due to expire in the summer, with the club having the option to extend it by another 12 months until 2019.
This is seen as an obligatory measure to protect Herrera's valuation but whether it will be accompanied with the guarantee of regular game time remains to be seen and could yet hinge on Herrera's performances in Pogba's absence. The visit of City always holds special value on the red side of Manchester and could prove pivotal as far as the destination of the title is concerned, but one player will be fighting to ensure it is not his last.