Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.
The Italian does not plead ignorance; he knows that Leicester’s charge was unexpected. Far out of the ordinary. Ranieri is as surprised as any, preferring to focus on reaching the 40-point mark, as the traditional number for avoiding relegation, while calming title talk.
Sunday’s visitors are a “breath of fresh air,” according to Juan Mata. After all, the Foxes were victorious in a relegation scrap 12 months ago, with a star striker who picked up more yellow cards than goals. Now Ranieri’s side is just three points away from winning the Premier League. It is an unprecedented achievement with a squad of players most onlookers would have described as ‘decent’ last summer.
In stark contrast to Ranieri, Louis van Gaal is a man famed for his arrogance, who has achieved little this season despite superior resources. Now into his second campaign, Van Gaal has overseen a step backwards, with his side playing the worst standard of football Old Trafford has seen in years. United’s FA Cup run is a shining light in an otherwise dark season.
It has left Van Gaal relying on others to falter if the Reds are to make the top four, while United failed in the Champions League and League Cup. Yet, Van Gaal recognises none of United’s failures as his fault. The lack of a “senior creative player” means his side cannot win matches, while United supporters are “living in the past” if they expect to challenge each year. Even in the market Van Gaal seeks excuses – it is “difficult” to sign players due to the prices other clubs demand. Then on Friday came the most bizarre excuse of all – that Manchester United’s players are “not used to being champions.”
That statement alone should be enough for the Old Trafford boardroom to take a second look and clock that the Dutchman is finished. It was an embarrassing assertion from a coach who claims to be schooled in football. For the record, 13 different United players have won between one and eight league titles – 33 league titles between them – not to mention the Reds squad houses four Champions League winners and two World Cup winners.
Despite the divergent paths the managers have taken this season, and the plaudits the visitors have received, many still expect United to delay Leicester’s party for another week. It sums up the season. Few expected Leicester to lead at this stage, with the dominant opinion being that the Foxes would fall away after Christmas. It didn’t happen, and that doubts remain reinforces the disbelief in Leicester’s achievement over the past nine months.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]On Friday came the most bizarre excuse of all – that Manchester United’s players are “not used to being champions.” Thirteen United players have won at least one a league title, there are four Champions League winners and two World Cup winners.[/blockquote]
The Premier League’s standard is, of course, called into question. There is no doubt that the poor performances of traditional challengers United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea has contributed to Leicester’s surge. Indeed, in years gone by this would have been a season made for Sir Alex Ferguson – the league would have been wrapped up by Christmas. Times have changed and the Premier League now lacks a ruthless manager who has the ability to focus his players on an ‘easy’ title. It should change next year, with the introduction of Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and possibly José Mourinho.
That is not to play down Leicester’s incredible achievement, with many already looking forward to watching the east midlanders in the Champions League next season. The focus remains on the present though, and Ranieri’s side can emulate Arsenal’s 2002 winners by confirming the title at the stadium that has hosted more celebrations than any in English football.
Van Gaal is rightly determined to delay Leicester’s party by another week. Not least because there is a place in the Champions League to challenge for, while many Reds rightly demand that title victory is not celebrated by the visitors ‘in our house.’
“I think we have to beat them because we are still in the race for fourth position,” Van Gaal said. “We cannot allow that they are the champions this weekend at Old Trafford. I think they will be champions a week later. We don’t spoil the party, only postpone it a little.”
Indeed, the clamour from the football community for Leicester to wrap up the title at Old Trafford is no factor in United’s quest for the top four. Victory is essential, not only for the Champions League, but for Van Gaal’s job prospects.
Team news and line-ups
Luke Shaw and Bastian Schweinsteiger remain the only members of United’s squad still on the treatment table. Schweinsteiger’s season is over, although there is still hope that Shaw could be part of United’s FA Cup squad on 21 May.
At the back, Van Gaal’s defence almost selects itself. Tim Fosu-Mensah’s rise has been understated compared to Marcus Rashford, but the Dutchman has been equally impressive. Fosu-Mensah was unfortunate to concede a penalty against Everton at Wembley last weekend, but lost his head before being substituted. Still, the youngster can expect to continue in one of the full-back positions, with Matteo Darmian likely to come in at left-back for the ineffective Marcos Rojo.
Despite Van Gaal stumbling on a successful 4-3-3 formation 12 months ago, the Dutchman has been slow to realise that it brings out the best in this United squad. Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini excelled against Everton last weekend, with the Belgian looking far more comfortable in a system where he has limited defensive or tactical responsibilities. Yet, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera might offer the best combination to battle Leicester’s combative midfield. Schneidlerin’s steel and Herrera’s movement and quick passing should match up well against the tenacious N’golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater.
Wayne Rooney is likely to again start is a free role, with Van Gaal now of the belief that his captain is more useful in midfield. Rooney performed well against Everton, although Kante and Drinkwater represent a far sterner test for the fading Englishman. Neither will simply allow Rooney to dictate play.
Up front, there is little need for Van Gaal to change a winning combination. Jesse Lingard’s link up with Rashford is showing promise, while Wembley hero Anthony Martial is again likely to start on the left. The Frenchman was omitted from the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist, although his performances this season have merited a shot at United’s Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: G Beswick, L Betts
Fourth Official: C Pawson