Friday 2 December 2016

Red letter days for Van Gaal as vultures circle for the kill

Paul Wilson

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Louis van Gaal: ‘If we can create an atmosphere like the one at Liverpool anything is possible’. Photo: Reuters
Louis van Gaal: ‘If we can create an atmosphere like the one at Liverpool anything is possible’. Photo: Reuters

After more false starts and failed recoveries than most supporters would care to remember, a crucial week could finally have arrived for Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. Once today's West Ham in an FA Cup quarter-final has been followed by the visit of Liverpool for more Europa League business on Thursday, the manager will either have something to show for his efforts this season or he will have to stop boasting about being in three competitions and finding it difficult.

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This is Manchester United, for goodness sake. They are generally fighting on three fronts at this time of year and they are not supposed to complain but get on with it.

One is often tempted to wonder what Alex Ferguson privately thinks about the way his once mighty club is now struggling to meet fairly ordinary challenges. Perhaps Liverpool in Europe does not fall comfortably into that category, but United only arrived in the Europa League by virtue of failing to make the Champions League cut and then being given a fright by Midtjylland. A home FA Cup quarter-final would not normally be a cause for concern, even if United did draw Premier League opponents and West Ham are having an unusually good season. Many would suggest it was about time Manchester United got a proper game in any case. The way Van Gaal tells it makes it sound as though his team have come through hell and high water to reach the FA Cup last eight, whereas in fact they have accounted for Sheffield United, Derby County and Shrewsbury Town.

Given that Manchester United are not exactly achieving their objectives in the Premier League, where a top four finish now looks unlikely again after Manchester City's points total was matched a couple of weeks ago, Van Gaal's mantra that the club remain in three different competitions is not as grand a claim as it sounds. On the basis of the performance at Anfield it might not be a sustainable one for much longer either. The one area where Van Gaal deserves a little sympathy is in only having a couple of days to come back from an exhausting night at Liverpool.

"We have to recover very quick and recover very good," he said. "West Ham did not play in midweek. When you see our schedule and then look at theirs you can see who will be the most rested."

That is true, although the money United spent over the summer reflected the fact they thought they would be competing at Champions League level at this stage, and had they still been involved in the main European competition there would not be the feeling that a stuttering season will come crashing around Van Gaal's ears should they go out of the FA Cup on today. The FA Cup knows its place these days. No one minds missing out if there are more exciting avenues to explore, but United have put themselves in Arsenal's position, hoping that a season that ends with a day out to Wembley will temporarily mask deficiencies elsewhere.

While there is room for argument over whether Arsenal's FA Cup default strategy is more permanent than temporary, at least they keep reaching Wembley and keep winning the trophy. Van Gaal would not silence his critics with FA Cup success either, though that prospect is still a way off. The alternative is vastly more unpalatable. Should United go out of the FA Cup the first time they came up against opponents at their level, then follow it later with a European exit at the hands of Liverpool, their season would be over early and in all probability so would Van Gaal's career in England.

United used to relish matches coming thick and fast at this time of year, it was often said that Ferguson's team only got going in early spring. Obviously competitions get more difficult the further one progresses, and the old United used to embrace that happily. If it turns out the new version cannot handle the heat being turned up in the later stages - and Van Gaal admitted his side could not cope at Anfield - then drawing attention to the fact that you are still in three competitions is the ultimate hollow boast.

"If we can create an atmosphere like the one at Liverpool anything is possible," Van Gaal said, surely clutching at an unattainable straw. "We might beat West Ham, we might even score three goals against Liverpool. We haven't lost too many games at Old Trafford and we have to keep our belief. I cannot deny I was disappointed with the performance at Anfield, but I am hoping it was an isolated incident. It was not what we normally deliver."

That might serve as an unofficial motto for Van Gaal's time at Old Trafford. It remains to be seen whether "Not What We Normally Deliver" becomes an epitaph, but a great deal could depend on the next two results.

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