Another week, another chance for Louis van Gaal to undo any good previously done. After all, Manchester United’s fine performance and excellent result in the FA Cup this week will count for little if Van Gaal’s side fails to beat Aston Villa on Saturday. The Dutchman’s side couldn’t fail, could it?
United still retains hope of overhauling Manchester City in the race for Champions League football next season, although it one that remains faint after defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday. That loss, coupled with City’s victory over West Bromwich Albion, leaves the Blues four points ahead of United with five games to play. Manuel Pellegrini’s side also enjoys a significant goal difference advantage.
The challenge, of course, is more than just Pellegrini’s outfit, but with United’s consistency. Too often this season United has bounced back from uplifting victory with another underwhelming performance. While Villa remains the worst side to grace the Premier League for some years, it is not beyond Van Gaal to conjure up dropped points at Old Trafford.
Still, the Dutchman’s capacity for survival was much in evidence once again this week. Six times now Van Gaal has taken his team into a match with terrace observers convinced it might be his last at United. Six times have the Reds come up with a victory. Indeed, United’s win at West Ham United on Wednesday was one of the more impressive this season, including for rare collectors value a fine performance and goal from the much maligned Marouane Fellaini.
Victory over the Hammers proffers United the chance at silverware this season, with the Reds facing Everton at Wembley in a winnable cup semi-final. The other semi, between Watford and Crystal Palace, offers a carrot Van Gaal’s team surely cannot pass up. United’s frequently disappointed supporters can see the cup opportunity, with the Champions League slipping away.
“I have said for the club it is much more important that we are finishing in the first four positions because the Champions League is the highest level, and a club like Manchester United has to show their abilities and qualities at the highest level,” van Gaal said.
“But a trophy is of course fantastic, especially the FA Cup, as it is a lot of years that we didn’t win it. You can see the happiness of the fans – I’m not in the streets so much, but I went to the hairdresser and I saw it. The cars are stopping and people want to take pictures again. There is a big arousal among the fans. It is nice to see they are hungry to get the FA Cup.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United has scored just 39 times this season, with only 20 at Old Trafford. What better time for Van Gaal’s side to offer up some entertainment, especially with season ticket renewal deadline looming?[/blockquote]
First, there is Villa on Saturday. The Birmingham side has lost 23 times in the league this season, including nine times in the past 10 games. It is not the worse record in Premier League history, but not far off it, with certain relegation to the Championship looming.
The Villans have gone through two managers already this season – a surefire strategy of failure under Randy Lerner’s low-investment, low-return regime. The American has brought chaos to Villa Park, with no clear roadmap to promotion in sight, with the club still up for sale. Presumably now at a knock-down price. It is an unenviable position for temporary coach Eric Black, whose side could be relegated before kick-off at Old Trafford.
“They’re probably going to be relegated,” Black said. “This could very easily implode. It could very easily turn into anarchy. I’m going to try and ensure that is not the case. If they’re all relegated I can only put certain parameters down to ensure that doesn’t happen. The players are waiting to see what’s going to happen here. They’re all in limbo. They are not great elements to motivate yourself.”
Villa will be relegated for the first time since 1987 should they fail to beat United on Saturday, or if Norwich get a point at Sunderland. It’s a scenario in which Van Gaal’s side surely cannot fail – one, indeed, where the team should make up some of that goal difference on City.
United has scored just 39 times this season, with only 20 at Old Trafford. What better time for Van Gaal’s side to offer up some entertainment, especially with season ticket renewal deadline looming?
Team news and line-ups
The injury crisis is over, just as United’s season begins to wind down. – at least Van Gaal will have a strong group from which to select a team at Wembley on 23 April.
Still, with every rainbow comes a dark cloud under the Dutchman. Ander Herrera, who enjoyed a rare start at West Ham, suffered injury and is likely to drop out, with Wayne Rooney a possible starter at Old Trafford. The Englishman has not started for United since the Reds beat Sunderland in February, but enjoyed a short cameo at Upton Park on Wednesday.
Rooney is notoriously slow to recover from injury, while Villa represents just the kind of soft-touch the Scouser normally needs to ease back into the team. The striker has scored just seven in the Premier League this season, with only three coming against top-half teams – another hugely disappointing return from the £300,000-a-week player.
Meanwhile, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose own performances this season have erred on the side of disappointing, is unlikely to play again before the summer, although in more positive news Luke Shaw is making a strong recovery from September’s leg-break.
“Herrera was injured, but the problem is that we have to recover again within two days,” van Gaal told MUTV. “That is a continuing problem, because we have to play so many matches when you are in so many competitions during this season, that is the only problem.
“Rooney always wants to play. I think he shall receive more minutes but it’s always dependable on the game. When it’s possible, I shall do that because we need Wayne in the team.
“I don’t think Schweinsteiger shall play this season. Maybe he is prepared for the European Championship, I cannot predict. It is possible. Shaw is now training on the pitch with the physiotherapist, it’s not with a trainer-coach, so that’s the difference. But he’s going great, it’s unbelievable.”
Van Gaal could shuffle his team around, with Fellaini hopeful of retaining his place, Juan Mata available after sitting out Wednesday’s cup victory, and Morgan Schneiderlin likely to come back into the side. Memphis Depay could also start, with Antony Martial and cup hero Marcus Rashford both having played significant amounts of football in recent weeks.
Either way, United should enjoy enough resources to achieve a comfortable victory over a very low quality Villa side. Then again, that observation has been made about more than one opponent this season. Van Gaal has not always come up with the goods.
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: L Betts, D Cann
Fourth Official: D Webb
United 2-0 Villa