It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
United’s football has rarely been pretty this season. Too often ineffective as well. Yet, in recent weeks Van Gaal’s side has found a way not only to create more chances than has been the norm, but win games too. Last weekend’s draw with Leicester City came with a modicum of luck, as did the FA Cup semi-final victory over Everton, but the Dutchman’s team has lost just one in 10.
The smart money is still being placed on Van Gaal losing his job shortly after 22 May, with José Mourinho eagerly awaiting the smoke signals from Old Trafford. Yet, if the veteran is to be pushed into retirement by a former protegé, then he is at least going out with some fight. About time.
Van Gaal is now widely despised among United’s fanbase, but should United qualify for the Champions League and pick up silverware, there will be a morsel, however small, of vindication in the Dutchman’s polarising methods.
Then, of course, there is the memory of failure. Horrific failure at that. Norwich City’s victory at Old Trafford in December came amid a run of three successful defeats. It was the manner, however, of the Canaries‘ win in Manchester that shocked most. This was not a smash-and-grab raid on a dominant Reds, but one of the worst teams in the Premier League out-thinking a truly dismal United side.
Van Gaal was said to have offered his resignation after defeat to Norwich was followed, on Boxing Day, by a calamitous loss at Stoke City. The rumour was later denied, although Ed Woodward’s hesitancy in reaching for Van Gaal’s P45 means that the season has become a race for fourth and not a potential shot at first.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United’s football has rarely been pretty this season. Too often ineffective as well. Yet, in recent weeks Van Gaal’s side has found a way not only to create more chances than has been the norm, but win games too. The Dutchman’s team has lost just one in 10.[/blockquote]
Memory of defeat to Norwich remains fresh, especially among the 3,000 fans who travel to East Anglia this weekend for the return game. For the sake of United’s European hopes the Reds must win on Saturday lunchtime. For Van Gaal it is dignity and a job on the line. Nobody can afford a Norwich double this weekend.
Little wonder the manager is increasingly on the defensive, seeking to play up the challenges of meeting a side that has just five wins at home all season. Mind you, United has won just six league games on the road so perhaps Van Gaal is right in preaching caution.
“It is always difficult to fight against a team who fights to maintain their place in the Premier League – that is always very difficult,” Van Gaal told the media on Thursday.
“We have to cope with that. Norwich won at Old Trafford so we have to take revenge. It shall be a very tough game, but in spite of that we have to win.”
Norwich, meanwhile, faces three matches to save a season, with the Canaries now two points shy of Newcastle United in 17th place, although Alex Neil’s side has a game in hand. Still, three successive defeats has turned the tide against Norwich while games featuring United, Watford and Everton hold no promise of easy points. It is now or never for the hosts to find a performance to match the one at Old Trafford back in December.
“We need to win games to make sure we stay at this level,” said Neil. “It comes no bigger than this, it really is crunch time now. There is no room for excuses, we’ve got to go out and do the job. The players know exactly where we are. They gave it their best efforts against Arsenal, and I expect exactly the same this weekend.”
Best efforts is not always enough, of course. And not always offered by Van Gaal’s men either. That December period, where defeat to Norwich and Stoke was preceded by losses at Bournemouth and Wolfsburg, appeared to be the turning point in the Dutchman’s time at United. Four defeats is bad enough, but it was the limp manner that brought the greatest embarrassment. Woodward stood firm, much to supporters’ widespread chagrin.
Four months on and United’s position – out of Europe, twice, and off the title pace, is not what Van Gaal promised when he claimed he would “make history” at Old Trafford. History is being made far from the manner he might prefer.
There is just a touch of hope though – that qualification for Europe’s top table and silverware could provide the springboard for a new man to take United back to the pinnacle of English football. Then again, as John Cleese once mused, it’s not despair that kills you. It’s the hope.
And Norwich at home.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal enjoys an almost fully fit squad as the season draws to a close, with only three first team players injured. Phil Jones will play in the under-21s this weekend, missing out on the trip to Norwich, while Luke Shaw is still recovering from a broken leg and Bastian Schweinsteiger misses the campaign’s remainder.
Injuries have certainly altered United’s campaign, as they have in the two other seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. One wonders what they put in the sponsored water at Carrington.
Yet, injuries have also become a crutch – a ready excuse for a veteran manager who has enjoyed one of the healthiest budgets in the club’s recent history. The manager says that returning players have boosted United’s performances towards the tail end of the season. Now he must deliver results.
“Of course, that’s the benefit of the situation now,” said Van Gaal of the relatively clean bill of health. “I have that at this moment, but in the month of December, I didn’t have that.”
Van Gaal could make changes from the team that drew with Leicester last weekend. Marouane Fellaini is suspended after elbowing Robert Huth, while the Dutchman claims that fatigue has become a factor in United’s campaign. Van Gaal’s team has played 54 games this season in league, Europe and two domestic cup competitions.
“We have to assess the tiredness of the players because there’s an overload of matches, so maybe I have to rotate,” he told MUTV.
“Fellaini is suspended so I will have to change my line-up. Every week you have something that you don’t like, but I think we can manage. In the Premier League it is more difficult because of the overload of the matches, we have to play more matches than in Spain or Germany, so I have to rotate sometimes.”
The Premier League contains 20 teams, as does La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1, while there are 18 clubs in the Bundesliga.
Van Gaal could bring Morgan Schneiderlin or Ander Herrera back into central midfield, although the Dutchman is unlikely to touch an attacking quartet that has created chances, if not scored goals in recent games. Marcus Rashford will be supported by Antony Martial, Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard, with Juan Mata consigned to the bench.
Elsewhere, Antonio Valencia or Matteo Darmian will play at right-back, with Timothy Fosu-Mensah seemingly not yet forgiven for handing Everton a penalty a Wembley. The youngster is a case study in Van Gaal’s mythical yet ultimately fickle faith in youth. With much to lose, and little margin for error, few now expect Van Gaal to takes risks he has so often forsaken in two disappointing years at Old Trafford.
“We have to win our matches because otherwise we cannot be in the first four,” admitted Van Gaal. “That’s the pressure that we have. We have to fight until the end, and then we have still a title [trophy] to win.”
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D Bryan
Fourth Official: K Hill
Norwich 1-2 United