“We are in a lot of competitions, just six points behind Manchester City, we have a lot of chances, a lot of titles to fight for. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.” Fighting talk or another delusional claim by Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal? Perhaps both, yet with a place in the FA Cup quarter-final now secure, Van Gaal looks forward to a tricky week with more confidence than before.
United’s victory over Shrewsbury Town on Monday night was far easier than most anticipated. The Shrews showed far too much respect to a vulnerable United side and paid for it, as the Reds put in a professional performance. In the aftermath many supporters have reiterated that United’s opponent ‘was only Shrewsbury’, but in the context of a difficult season, United’s dominance from the start was impressive against a home side happy to put men behind the ball.
The League One club sought a lucrative replay with a defensive outlook – hardly cause for criticism, although with United at its lowest point since the 1970s, Shrewsbury might never have enjoyed a better chance to secure a famous victory.
Still, victory has bought Van Gaal some time as he looks to mount a challenge in the FA Cup and secure Champions League football by winning the Europa League. It is an unlikely scenario given United’s inability to put together the sort of consistent run needed to challenge for silverware. However, it is a truism that as long as United remains in two winnable competitions Van Gaal will be United manager. The Dutchman needs to secure at least one trophy for the sake of reputational redemption, if nothing else, before a seemingly inevitable departure in the summer.
The Reds welcome Midtjylland on Thursday night with a little more confidence, albeit with fewer players. Van Gaal’s team suffered three further injuries at Shrewsbury and heads into a must win game with a squad paired down to its bare bones. The remaining players should still be good enough to beat the Danish side, although Van Gaal cannot afford any more injuries ahead of Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday.
Midtjylland represents another test for United whatever the injury outlook – as the Danes proved at home last week – although with the visitors holding a 2-1 advantage few expect the team to attack with as much intent. Instead, Midtjylland might deploy a containing strategy, sitting back and getting men behind the ball. It is a risky tactic after Monday night, but one that has worked against Van Gaal’s team this season.
With José Mourinho once again in the headlines this week, after yet more claims of an imminent move to Manchester, Van Gaal’s future rests on solid results from here in. Mourinho appeared to confirm that he will return to management next season – the speculation that it’ll be at Old Trafford continues to increase.
Despite this Van Gaal seemed positive ahead of Thursday night’s game. If speculation about Mourinho speculation is getting through to the Dutchman it isn’t showing. Van Gaal even joked with supporters after Monday night’s game that he hopes things will improve “or else I shall be sacked.”
Van Gaal confirmed that United’s approach will be similar, citing creativity and speed of passing as his team’s best chance to advance to the last 16.
“I don’t think there is so much difference to the away game but we have to score, that’s for sure,” Van Gaal said. “We have to disorganise their organisation so we have to be creative. That’s why I have already said we have to move the ball very quickly, so they do not have the chance to run the situation.”
United must also be mindful of Midtjylland’s quick counter-attacks and threat from set pieces, which were prevalent in Denmark.
And what does Van Gaal want from his team in yet another crucial game? “Desire, hunger… a lot of times I use the word horny.”
For the United manager’s sake his team must be anything other than flaccid on Thursday night – or fans will be given pause to wonder why Van Gaal’s tactics are not as entertaining as his press conferences.
Team news and line-ups
United: Romero; Varela, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson; Carrick, Herrera; Mata, Pereira, Memphis; Martial
Subs from: J.Pereira, Love, Poole, Riley, McNair, Rojo, Schneiderlin, Lingard, Rashford
Midtjylland: Andersen; Romer, Hansen, Bodurov, Novak; Sparv, Olsson, Kadlec, Hassan, Sisto; Pusic
Subs from: Urena, Dahlin, Dueland, Banggaard-Jensen, Bak-Nielsen, Onuachu, Royer
With United’s league campaign all but over by February the onus has moved towards the two cup competitions in which United remains. While victory in either is unlikely, a trip to Wembley beckons should the Reds beat West Ham United in the FA Cup quarter-final. In Europe a new route into the Champions League has opened up just in time for Van Gaal’s down and out Reds.
Van Gaal is not helped in this mission by an injury crisis that stretches to 14 first team players. In a rare piece of good news Marcos Rojo is fit enough to make the bench on Thursday, while Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj have returned to training, although the Belgian is cup tied in Europe. There is no confirmed return date for Marouane Fellaini or Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Sergio Romero continues to deputise for David De Gea in goal after Van Gaal confirmed the Spaniard will miss Thursday night’s game. No timeframe is given for De Gea’s return, although Van Gaal has high hopes that the Spaniard will make Sunday’s game at home to Arsenal.
Injury to Cameron Borthwick-Jackson at Shrewsbury forced the youngster off at half-time, although the left-back trained on Wednesday. Guillermo Varela’s return was welcome as the full-back injury crisis worsens, with the Uruguayan playing well against an un-adventurous Shrewsbury side. Despite claims that Chris Smalling did not train on Wednesday Van Gaal confirmed that his stand-in skipper is fit.
In midfield, Van Gaal’s rotation policy means that Michael Carrick will return in the place of Morgan Schneidlerin. Schneiderlin grew into the game on Monday night and ended the match as the player with the most touches and passes throughout the game. Ander Herrera continues in a deeper role hoping to improve upon a dire performance in last week’s first leg.
Further forward, an injury to Jesse Lingard means he is doubtful to retain his place on the right-wing. This could pave the way for Andreas Pereira to make a belated return to the starting team – either on the right or in Juan Mata’s central role. Mata was voted United’s man of the match against the Shrews despite playing only an hour of football, and Van Gaal needs the Spaniard to continue his good form if his side is to be successful in either of the cup competitions.
“I think we have to stay calm as it is still a big week with games against Midtjylland and Arsenal, we have to make sure we play again in the next game,” said Pereira. “We have to focus against Midtjylland, it’s a really important week for us and hopefully we can make it three wins from three on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, Memphis Depay is looking to build upon an improved level of performance in the last week. The Dutchman scored United’s goal in Denmark and was unlucky not to score against Shrewsbury. Memphis is a ‘confidence player’ and weaker opposition, such as Midtjylland and Shrewsbury, may have prove timely for a player low on success this season.
United 2-0 Midtjylland
Referee: Istvan Vad
Assistants: Istvan Albert , Peter Berettyan
Fourth official: Laszlo Viszokai