As one door closes, another opens. Manchester United’s top four ambitions were dealt a significant blow last weekend as the Reds lost 2-1 to a relegation-threatened Sunderland side. It all but ended United’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next season. In a week, and indeed a season, where mediocrity has followed United round like a bad smell, few should be surprised that Louis van Gaal’s side finds itself travelling to Denmark on a Thursday night to try and salvage another season. Yet, as Champions League qualification looks to be out of reach for United through the league, the Europa League represents an escape route for Van Gaal’s men.
One more challenge in a challenging period for the club. This week Nicky Butt was announced as the new director of United’s Academy despite the fact that Butt has been, effectively, in the role since Brian McClair’s departure last year. He wasn’t first choice. Meanwhile, Van Gaal inexplicably remains United manager despite sounding like a broken man in his post match press conference last weekend. The Dutchan’s side must now win a competition described as the Champions League’s ‘ugly sister’ to ensure qualification for Europe’s top prize next year – this despite spending close to £250 million since Van Gaal’s arrival at United. Mediocrity has well and truly set in at Old Trafford, and its here to stay.
Still, the Reds travel to Denmark knowing that victory is indeed the club’s best chance of Champions League qualification. The side should at least be determined to appease supporters who continue to offer position support – none so more than the few Reds who have made the midweek trip to Denmark at the cost of £77 per match ticket. Whilst the majority supporters would happily fast forward through the rest of the season, Van Gaal and his players owe something to fans over the remainder of the campaign. Not least because there are winnable competitions left – perhaps Van Gaal’s only hope of staying in the job.
Thursday night’s game comes amid the environment of another disappointing defeat. The Dutchman once praised United for playing what he described as “sparkling” football since the turn of the year. Nothing sparkled about his side on Saturday, which was out-thought and outplayed by Sunderland. It was United’s first ever defeat in the Premier League at the Stadium of Light, leaving United sliding down the form table. Van Gaal’s men have only taken two points more than Aston Villa over the last dozen Premier League games.
In fact the belief that has United has turned a corner under Van Gaal in 2016 was always a myth. Time is up for the Dutchman, who has reportedly taken a short-term lease out on his home in the expectation that he will be removed from his position in the summer. Few will argue when it happens – his tenure has been nothing short of a disaster.
Midtjylland, meanwhile, is a club sure of itself ahead of the biggest game in a short history. The Danish side has no form to speak of due to the fact that that the Danish league is on an extended midweek break that stretches back to 10 December. However, the Wolves did manage to beat Southampton in the play offs to reach the Europa League and also advanced ahead of Club Brugge in the group stages, the Belgian side that faced United in the Champions League play-off round.
Midtjylland’s manager is confident too, citing United’s weakness at set pieces as an opportunity for his team to hurt the Reds. Midtjylland has also played a small part in Mancunian history previously too, having beaten Manchester City 1-0 on the eve of City’s financial takeover back in 2008.
The visitors have little reason to feel confident, but Van Gaal remained in good form good form as he faced journalists in his pre match press conference. Van Gaal admitted he is wary of Midtjylland’s set piece threat and bemoaned United’s injury record, although the Dutchman believes his young squad is capable of overcoming what could be a challenging night in Central Jutland.
“They have played in the league, in the FA Cup and Europe, and that helps you develop more than playing for the reserves,” Van Gaal said of his young team. “We have young players sitting on the bench and my belief is that they can all play. For example, tomorrow’s right back (Donald Love) has played only one game for us, but we have seen that he has taken out instruction on board, so we know he can play”.
Despite the calibre of the opposition Marouane Fellaini insists that United will not be complacent on Thursday night. The Belgian was dropped for United’s game against Sunderland due to being in ‘the red zone’ and has not travelled to Denmark. Despite Fellaini’s flaws his height could have been useful when defending set pieces – it is how United conceded both goals to Sunderland at the weekend and how Midtjylland has scored nearly half of the team’s goals this season.
“They will be very aggressive as they want to win and show that they are a good team, but we are strong too and have great players,” Fellaini said. “We have the capacity to win and we want to win the game, even though it will be difficult. We have to be motivated because we know they will be.”
Motivating his players will be Van Gaal’s biggest task ahead of Thursday night’s game. Few of the recent recruits signed up for a freezing cold Thursday night in Scandinavia when they were offered the chance to work with the ‘genius’ Dutchman.
“I want to win a title in England and United have had a lot of time not winning the FA Cup. But for United as a club, it’s more important to win the Europa League because you can qualify for the Champions League,” Van Gaal adds.
The Dutchman knows it is likely he will need to win at least one of those competitions in order to stand any chance of remaining United manager through the summer. In a season of mediocrity, increasingly few believe it can happen.
Team news and line-ups
De Gea; Love, Smalling, McNair, Blind; Schneiderlin, Carrick, Pereira, Herrera, Memphis; Keane
Subs from: Romero, Poole, Riley, Lingard, Weir, Mata, Martial
Dahlin; Romer, Hansen, Sviatchenko, Lauridsen; Sparv, Sisto, Olsson, Poulson, Royer; Rasmussen
Subs from: Pusic, Urena, Andersson, Banggard-Jensen, Andersen, Onuachu, Hassan
Despite Van Gaal giving mixed messages regarding the Europa League it has turned into a competition United must win in order to qualify for the Champions League next season. It will be no easy task considering the calibre of some of the opposition in the competition. However, a comfortable victory over Midtjylland on Thursday night may offer Van Gaal the chance to rest his players in the return leg next week ahead of a critical match with Arsenal at Old Trafford the following Sunday.
On the injury front Van Gaal has suffered no break, with 13 players now on the treatment table. Wayne Rooney is reportedly out for up to two months with ligament damage, whilst Fellaini has a muscle problem. Matteo Darmian’s dislocated shoulder means he will be out for some time, whilst there has been positive news yet on Adnan Januzaj, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Phil Jones. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson misses the trip through illness.
Donald Love will make his first start for the club after coming on for the injured Darmian last Saturday. Love performed well considering that he and Borthwick-Jackson were specifically targeted by Sunderland. Daley Blind will deputise at left-back, allowing Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair to form a new partnership in the centre.
Smalling was at fault for Sunderland’s second goal, however the England man remains United’s player of the season thus far and is Van Gaal’s first name on the team sheet even in seemingly ‘easy’ games.
In midfield, Ander Herrera is overdue a start and should come in to help pick apart a Midtjylland team who will look to get bodies behind the ball. Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick will both start, although expect both to be withdrawn early should the Reds find themselves in the driving seat. Andreas Pereira is also long overdue a start and will probably play on the right with licence to roam. Memphis comes back into the side on the left after impressing for the Under 21s – it will allow Anthony Martial a rest after an extended run of games.
Up front Will Keane’s recent heroics in the Under 21s means that he may get his first start for United since returning from Preston North End. The striker has been in lethal form since returning from his loan spell and will be trusted to lead the line after starting the last two first team games on the bench.
Referee: Artur Dias
Midtjylland 0-3 United