In a week where all the talk around Manchester United has been firmly centred off the pitch it may have escaped many observers that the Reds travel to Sunderland on Saturday searching for the three most important points of the season. Rumours that José Mourinho is coming dominated the headlines early in the week, with many pundits claiming a deal has been completed for the former Chelsea boss to succeed Louis van Gaal in the summer. Then, on Thursday, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward briefed investors that the club is confident of breaking half a billion in revenue by the end of the year. Supporters might be forgiven for thinking everything is going well at Old Trafford.
Alas, it is not so. Van Gaal’s side is six points adrift of Manchester City in fourth place and 12 behind leaders Leicester City. For all Van Gaal’s bullish, confident, talk last summer the title is no longer United’s goal – it has been the case for some time. Now, after an awful run in December, United’s chance of reaching the top four looks slim too, with the Reds continuing to drop points in fixtures the team would have won in years gone by.
Van Gaal is at a cross roads. Despite pleading ignorance, the Dutchman must be aware that rumours of Mourinho’s arrival haven’t been wholly “invented” by the media – his team must make the top four for Van Gaal to be in with a shout of Woodward not making the call to the ‘Special One’ in the summer.
The team travels to Sunderland aiming for a win after dropping two points away at Chelsea last weekend. United played well in London and deserved to come away with all three points, however a late Diego Costa equaliser left United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League on the precipice after the Spaniard capitalised on a series of defensive errors. It was a sickening blow, but one United supporters have to come expect from Van Gaal’s side. After all, for 18 months the Dutchman has bemoaned his team’s conviction when it comes to finishing the opposition off. Van Gaal has failed to address the problem.
Still, United travels to the North East in relatively good form. The team has lost just once in 2016; a lacklustre defeat to Southampton at Old Trafford, and has on occasion played what Van Gaal describes as “sparking football.”
There remains a high level of concern among the club’s supporters though – “sparkling football” is the least many expect of a United team faced with mediocre opposition such as Championship Derby County and mid-table Stoke City. It is hardly a measure of progress. Yet, concerns are raised because Van Gaal seemingly believes his own rhetoric. His team may have lost just once in 2016, but supporters remain dubious considering only two of the Dutchman’s opponents are placed in the top half of the table.
Sunderland, meanwhile, has been flirting with relegation for the best part of three seasons and has only finished in the top half once since returning to the Premier League in 2007. The writing is on the wall for Sam Allardyce’s team, which is four points from safety. Yet, in a season of unpredictability, ‘Big Sam’ remains confident.
“Providing chances for Jermain Defoe is critical for us. But our first major problem is that we haven’t kept a clean sheet in 11 matches,” Allardyce said on Friday. “We need to start putting a zero against us in games and, if we start doing that, we’ll win more matches. If we win more matches, we’ll get out of trouble”.
Allardyce has cause for hope – the low-scoring visitors have scored more than twice in only a quarter of the team’s games this season. However, the Reds are yet to lose at the Stadium of Light in the Premier League, and have lost just one of the previous 27 league meetings between the two sides. Van Gaal’s team must continue that run if the top four is to remain in reach – and if the Dutchman is to save his job.
Despite speculation linking his former assistant the top job Van Gaal remains self-confident, claiming journalists are “inventing stories” about Mourinho, while blaming Paul Scholes for supporter’s lack of faith in the Dutchman. At least Van Gaal was honest enough to concede that his team may have left too much to do in the hunt for Champions League football.
“We had lost four matches in a row in December and you see us now,” Van Gaal said. “You can only say that we are mentally very strong and we can cope with the pressure. That is not enough now as we have to improve our results and consistency to win a lot of matches in a row. We have to minimise the gap”.
The odds are stacked against the Reds, leaving victory against Sunderland on Saturday as the necessary catalyst for the consistency Van Gaal craves. Still, Van Gaal’s squad continues to talk a good game. Veteran Michael Carrick even claimed that his side can win the title, although captain Wayne Rooney is focused on the more pressing matter of reaching the top four.
“We want to get in that top four again and try to push as high up the table as possible,” the captain said. “The only way we can do that is by winning games”.
Despite the optimism few remain convinced. Defeat on Saturday could leave United seven points off the top four, with a vastly inferior goal difference. With only 13 games left this season, victory is crucial for Van Gaal and his men.
But what if United fails to clinch a Champions League spot? “It is not a question for me, it’s a question for the board of Manchester United, you have to put it to them,” Van Gaal says. Talk of Mourinho’s arrival will only intensify unless United achieves victory over Sunderland on Saturday. Failure could signal the start of a very long and drawn out goodbye from the Dutchman.
Team news and line-ups
Subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Fellaini, Januzaj, Memphis, Pereira, Keane
Subs from: Brown, Rodwell, Pickford, Toivonen, Jones, Khazri, Larsson
The narrative is clear: win at all costs. The Reds are buoyed by the fact that the top four all play each other this weekend, meaning that at least two of the teams will drop points. Van Gaal will need to keep this in mind as he prepares his players for a make or break tie away at the Black Cats.
Van Gaal had mixed news on the injury front, with Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia close to a return, but Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones set to miss more games. Adnan Januzaj and Guillermo Varela took knocks for the Under-21’s this week, although the Dutchman played down the severity of the pair’s injuries.
In defence injuries mean there is a distinct lack of options. Van Gaal is likely to deploy Matteo Darmian and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at full-back. The pair has performed well since the turn of the year and both attacked positively at Chelsea last weekend. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind continue at centre back despite both making errors leading up to Chelsea’s equaliser.
Van Gaal may consider Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera after both have spent a period out of the starting team. Schneiderlin’s steel and discipline were missed at times last weekend, with Marouane Fellaini generating more than one ‘heart-in-mouth’ moment. The Belgian has performed better in recent games, but remains a defensive liability.
Further forward there is greater cause for optimism. Jesse Lingard scored a stunning goal against the Blues last week, while Juan Mata was awarded the man-of-the-match award against his old club. The Spaniard’s return to form in the number 10 role has coincided with United’s recent upturn in performances, with Mata finally starting to dictate play. United’s stand out attacking player of the season, Anthony Martial, continues on the left after terrorising Branislav Ivanovic last week.
Sunderland 0-2 United
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: J Collin, S Beck
Fourth official: L Mason