The Premiership’s basement club are staring relegation in the face as they trail second-bottom Kilmarnock by eight points with just five games left, beginning with Sunday’s visit of Hamilton to Tannadice.
Should Paatelainen’s side lose at home to Accies and Kilmarnock win away at Inverness, they would face the dreaded prospect of having their fate sealed with defeat by Dundee on Monday 2 May when they make the short trip to Dens for a televised fixture.
United, who are bidding to bounce back from Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Hibs on penalties, know there is precious little room for error with their manager hoping the mere thought of being sent down by their city rivals can drive them on.
Paatelainen said: “Every match is win at all costs for us. It’s as simple as that. The situation is not rosy. it’s very serious and difficult, so we will go out to win every game.
“You never want to lose at Dens Park or at Tannadice against Dundee. The players know this. They are not stupid, and they don’t want it to happen either.
“I’m sure Dundee would love it but it’s up to us. We don’t want to lose any game. That’s the motivation.
“We believe we can win matches. If someone tells me we can’t beat Hamilton, Dundee, Caley Thistle, Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock – I’ll disagree. It’s very unlikely we will win all the matches, but we can win them.
“I don’t know how many we need to win. I really don’t.
“All we can do is our best and whether we’re good enough or not we will just have to see.”
Paatelainen faces the task of raising morale in the wake of missing out on a place in the Scottish Cup final, and the Finn admits only time will tell if the players have the strength of character to take their survival fight to the end of what’s been a strained campaign.
He said: “Everyone is disappointed after last weekend but we have to lift the spirits again.
“It will be difficult to do for the people who are weak because they will see the pressure that’s on them. But it’s so motivating to the strong ones because they will want to get to Sunday, win the match and give ourselves a chance.
“Do we have the dressing-room to handle that? We’ll see, but so far the lads have shown great character and spirit.
“They have confidence and determination. They have shown that in certain matches.
“In other games they haven’t taken that chance, like when we had the opportunity to get to within two points of Kilmarnock, we didn’t take it.
“Whether it’s a mental thing or whether it just didn’t happen, I don’t know. It might be that just on the pitch we’re not good enough.
“The Partick Thistle game recently is one where we should have scored four goals in the first half – we didn’t take our chances. Last weekend at Hampden, we had chances to score but didn’t take them either. The same things happen all the time, it’s not just those two matches.
“You shouldn’t need better opportunities than we have created to score goals.
“Whether it’s a case of we’re simply not good enough or whether it’s mentality, it’s difficult to pin-point. You need both of those things and at times we have shown we have them, but on too many occasions we haven’t.
“The boys are fantastic and we all realise that we’re in it together. We win, lose or draw together and there have been no problems in the dressing-room at all.”