It wasn’t boring at least. Manchester United’s defeat at Wolfsburg on Tuesday featured five goals and the kind of drama that is supposed to happen on pivotal European nights. For better or worse, there has been little of this kind of entertainment at United this season. Yet, with the Reds out of Europe’s premier competition after defeat, Louis van Gaal is under pressure as never before. Two competitions down, two to go, plus an unwelcome spell in the Europa League lies ahead; the season could yet turn into a calamity.
After all, with United fourth in the Premier League, there is no guarantee that Van Gaal’s team will qualify for next season’s Champions League. Not with Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur resurgent. The Dutchman’s side may be one victory off top place, but also a damaging defeat away from dropping out of European contention altogether.
Tuesday’s defeat leaves Van Gaal on the defensive, with too many high quality teams left in the Europa League to make any assumptions about United’s success. Nor in the FA Cup, which the club has not won in more than a decade.
Under increasing pressure, Van Gaal’s claims that his team has “a lot to fight for” this season, but that the level of competition has increased across the Premier League, leaving supporters with no guarantees of future success. The Dutchman believes that fans are living in “the past,” on glories achieved under Sir Alex Ferguson.
“They say a club like Manchester United has to win,” said Van Gaal this week. “That’s the past. You have to analyse the club now. Now we have much more clubs who have money. Next year, all the clubs in the Premier League have a bigger budget than most in Europe.
“You think Manchester United has a lot of money – that is true. But other clubs are asking for much more from us than from Bournemouth. The difference is not so big any more. The confirmation is every week. The bottom clubs can beat the top teams. There is no other league where that happens as often as it does in the Premier League.”
United’s budget will be larger than most though – both domestically and in Europe, leaving the Reds’ relative wealth untouched. With Ed Woodward still scouring the continent for an elusive marquee player, many observers assume that Van Gaal will again be handed a sizeable transfer budget in the coming windows.
In the near term Van Gaal’s cause is hampered by an absentee list that now reaches nine players, including the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger and injured captain Wayne Rooney. With an squad already paired back following two summers of sales, Van Gaal may once again be forced to use untested youngsters during United’s weekend match at Bournemouth.
The Cherries have suffered five defeats in the past 10 league matches, but lie just outside the relegation zone following some spirited performances in recent weeks. Eddie Howe’s team beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend, although have suffered for a porous defence over the season. Bournemouth has scored just two goals fewer than United this season, but have conceded 30 – the worst defensive record in the league.
Bournemouth’s sole victory over United is an FA Cup third round win in 1984, under Harry Redknapp’s management.
“We are at home and I would not have thought they will fancy it but it will be an experience for most of their players,” winger Matt Richie told the BBC. “We will try and make it a tough day for them.”
Van Gaal believes the south coast side is “playing very positively,” unlike the defensive and pragmatic team that the Dutchman has built at Old Trafford. “I hope we can beat them – also our away stats are much better than last year,” he added.
That is true, but Van Gaal’s side has also scored just 11 goals away from home in the league, with six coming against Everton and Southampton. Indeed, United’s more open approach at Wolfsburg brought the kind of cataclysmic defeat that has previously sent Van Gaal into defensive retrenchment. Few expect United to run anything but a tighter ship on the south coast this weekend.
It is a cycle that leaves United’s legion supporters increasingly frustrated and potentially mutinous. Van Gaal cannot afford another defeat this weekend, while the Dutchman must lift his players out of the negative malaise.
“I try to but, of course, the players have to do that also by themselves, they are also the professionals,” he told MUTV.
“They need to use their tools to lift them up and we have a lot to fight for, I think. So we are very close in the Premier League to the top. We can fight for the FA Cup and fight also for the Europa League, so I think we have enough to fight for.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is without nine players for journey south; eight in the treatment room and Schweingsteiger suspended for a incident involving West Ham’s Winston Reid last weekend. Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling joined the injured this week, while Marcos Rojo underwent surgery on a dislocated shoulder. The Argentinian joins Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw as long-term absentees.
“It is not so good. It’s nine players who are not able to play,” said Van Gaal. “Schneiderlin is coming back, that’s not a problem, but we have a list of eight players injured and it takes a long time. It is not beneficial for us because we have a heavy programme but I believe that Smalling, Herrera and Darmian are coming back before Christmas.”
The absentees leaves Van Gaal with few options, especially in defence. Paddy McNair could partner Dutchman Daley Blind, with Ashley Young, Guillero Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson competing for two full-back places. Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini will be asked to provide the midfield cover so conspicuously absent in Germany this week.
The story in attack is different, with an exciting looking quartet of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Juan Mata a possible selection.
Meanwhile, Bournemouth manager Howe is missing the injured quintet of Callum Wilson, Tyrone Mings, Max-Alain Gradel, Lee Tomlin and on-loan Christian Atsu, although goalkeeper Artur Boruc, together with midfielder Marc Pugh, has recovered from injury.
“Beat Manchewstest United? We know we can do it, it is in our hands and down to us,” said Howe. “Our performance levels were extremely high last week but we are probably going to have to surpass that to have any chance of winning.”
Bournemouth subs from: Federici, Allsop, Cargill, Distin, Rantie, MacDonald, Pugh, Kermorgant, O’Kane, Murray, Bennett
United subs from: Romero, Tuanzebe, Borthwick-Jackson, Schneiderlin, Goss, Pereira, Powell, Rashford
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: G Beswick, S Burt
Fourth Official: J Moss
Bournmouth 1-1 United
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