Louis van Gaal says what United fans won't want to hear: 'We can't win Champions League'
Louis van Gaal did not get where he is today by beating about the bush, so here, in the bold, fearless style for which the Manchester United manager has become famous, is his take on his club's prospects in Europe before the trip to Wolfsburg on Tuesday, when only a win will guarantee progress to the Champions League knockout stage.
"I don't think we are able to win the Champions League now," he says, meaning 18 months into his Old Trafford tenure, not now that United have left themselves a mountain to climb in Group B. "Maybe next year, when we strengthen again. We think we are capable of beating anyone on our day, but you have to be realistic also. We are not good enough to win the Champions League at this time."
Few would disagree, actually. It is just unusual to hear a manager, especially a Manchester United manager, admitting there are limits to what might be possible.
The way United have been playing of late, with Van Gaal himself damning his side with faint praise by claiming they have become hard to beat, it seems perfectly obvious that at least two of the manager's old clubs, not to mention a few other big names around Europe, will be strong favourites to go further once the knockout action starts.
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That is assuming United can even reach the knockout stage, which is far from a given, though on that front, at least Van Gaal is confident a satisfactory result can be achieved.
"Yes, we can win on Tuesday because we have already beaten them at home," he says. "I know that Wolfsburg shall not attack too much because with a draw they continue and we are dependent on PSV, but I think we can always score goals. That might seem a little strange because we have not been scoring many goals, but every match we create chances, more in the European games than in the Premier League, I believe, so I think we can always score."
In that case, it might have been better to score at home in the last round. Van Gaal said after the goalless draw with PSV that the best chance to secure qualification had been lost, and he still had the services of Wayne Rooney at that point.
The United captain is rated doubtful for the Wolfsburg game with an ankle injury, and while that does not necessarily reduce the potency of the attack any more, it does rob the side of a wealth of experience.
Van Gaal's front runners at the Volkswagen Arena are likely to be some or all of Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay and Jesse Lingard, so it is as well that United can call on the expertise (and German knowledge) of Bastian Schweinsteiger to back that callow trio. Schweinsteiger has even been getting on the scoresheet in recent weeks.
"The reason we bought Schweinsteiger is because he is a player who can lead and guide a team," the manager says. "His football qualities are important, but so is his leadership. He has been doing well for us, but he can still play better. Until now, we haven't seen the best of Schweinsteiger, we haven't seen the player I had at Bayern Munich."
No, but it is possible Bayern Munich thought they might not see much more of that player either. It is more than four years since Van Gaal left the club and Schweinsteiger is now in his 30s, though in fairness, after a few heavy-legged displays in early season, he looked more like his old self at Leicester last Saturday, when he scored.
While Schweinsteiger could be an important asset in Germany, Van Gaal's assertion that Wolfsburg will play for a draw appears more questionable. A draw would not be enough for United should PSV beat CSKA Moscow at home, which seems likely, given that the Russians have no further interest in the Champions League.
While it is true that Moscow could qualify for the Europa League by beating PSV in Eindhoven, that is not motivation of the sort to base plans around. Van Gaal says he will have someone on the bench relating the score from Holland to him during the game, yet unless Moscow race to a three-goal lead, it is probably best to assume that PSV will win and United will have to do likewise.
That combination of results would put Wolfsburg out, even though they presently top the group, which is another reason why the Germans might not be inclined to sit back and wait.
The situation is similar in Chelsea's group, where the leaders could be overhauled by the two clubs below them should they lose their final game against Porto, though a side with such a strong European pedigree should not be unduly daunted by the prospect of having to gain at least a point at home. A win would guarantee top spot for Chelsea, a draw would make things complicated, but could still leave them in second.
Porto need a win to guarantee progress, as Dynamo Kiev are likely to reach 11 points with a final game against the bottom club, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Things are more straightforward in the other two groups involving English teams. In Athens on Wednesday, Arsenal need to better or equal Olympiakos's 3-2 win at the Emirates to join Bayern Munich in the last 16, but it would not be an enormous surprise to see Arsene Wenger's side manage it. Manchester City have already qualified, though their hopes of topping the group receded with a second defeat by Juventus. Only a Sevilla win against the leaders would allow City a route back to the top.
That seems unlikely, indeed City beating Borussia Monchengladbach cannot be taken for granted, though the overall situation is a little rosier than at the start of the cycle, when three of the four English clubs lost their opening games. There might be a casualty this week, with United looking most precarious, but two if not three Premier League teams should make the last 16.
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Sunday Indo Sport