Wednesday 21 February 2018

Grim outlook for Van Gaal as United fluff lines

Louis van Gaal embraces Anthony Martial (right) after the final whistle Photo: PA
Louis van Gaal embraces Anthony Martial (right) after the final whistle Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

Old Trafford has staged some great dramas down the years, but usually Manchester United are starring in them, not hosting champions elect who were rank outsiders when the season began, with only an increasingly desperate battle for fourth to keep the Stretford End engaged.

The incongruity of seeing United reduced to bit-part players in their own stadium concealed how much was at stake for the 13-time Premier League champions, and for Louis van Gaal, their dangling manager.

If this was meant to be the day Leicester ascended to global fame, it was also a critical juncture for United, who started it five points outside the Champions League qualifying places but picked up only a point before Southampton threw United a lifeline by beating City 4-2.

Imagine how this all felt to the previously imperious United. Leicester were in the house with their two United discards, Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson, and with Peter Schmeichel's son, Kasper, in nets. Seventeen points separated the United monolith and the Leicester minnow.

United's creeping desperation was overshadowed in the build-up but there is only one way to view the outcome. The chances of Van Gaal keeping his job decreased with this 1-1 draw and the possibility of Jose Mourinho or A N Other taking his place rose another notch.

The stark reality, conceded by Van Gaal, is that United have lost control of their Champions League qualifying mission - a modest aim to begin with for a club who spent £250m on new players.

Set against an embarrassing first-round exit in December in a group that contained PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg, United simply could not explain away the disappointment of not even qualifying this time round, in a league where Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have been fitful or downright hopeless.

So while Leicester needed to win here to send the final shock wave round the world, United had to exploit Jamie Vardy's absence and coronation big-night nerves to assert their own pedigree.

They started well enough down that road, scoring in the 10th minute through Anthony Martial, and posted a season-high 70 per cent possession rate.

But once again Leicester's tenacity and positivity were too much for an opponent with a superior profile, and United fans were forced to turn to City's game at Southampton in the hope that United's final three games against Norwich (away), West Ham (away) and Bournemouth at home would look a bit more encouraging.

No luck there, because with Arsenal's win over Norwich, United are still in a three-way scrap with City and West Ham and are not masters of their own fate. Even Van Gaal admits it.

"I have said to my players - I have seen one of the best matches of the season from my line-up. But it was not enough," he said. "You have to score when you are so attacking and creating chances.

"When you concede again a set-play goal, that is a pity, I think.

"I said you have to win every game, so now already we are not closing the gap. We are depending more on City because Arsenal have won. That's the big gap, with three matches (left). Mathematically you can do it but it shall be very difficult."

"It shall be very difficult" has come to sound like an epitaph for Van Gaal, who began the day telling football reporters: "Next year you will see me again."

The basis of that claim was that United, not he, had insisted on a three-year contract, rather than two; a detail that seems immaterial at the end of such an uneven campaign, leavened only by an FA Cup final against Crystal Palace.

Two controversies provided talking points for Van Gaal to chew on but failed to divert attention from his underlying problem, which is that a failure to be in next term's Champions League would render his position unsustainable, regardless of whether they beat Palace, for two reasons: 1, The dire exit in December and, 2, The amount of money spent to reverse the backslide of David Moyes' tenure.


The first incident was Robert Huth choking and then pulling the hair of Marouane Fellaini - a target chosen perhaps because Huth knew his victim would retaliate, which he did, with a swinging arm.

"What he is doing, Fellaini, is reacting like a human being because when I grab you by your hair and pull it backwards you shall do also something to me, I believe," Van Gaal said.

He illustrated this point on Sky's touchline reporter, who was probably expecting a merely verbal response to his question.

The second was Drinkwater's dismissal for a second offence of grabbing or grappling, this time on the edge of the box (no, Leicester are not winning this title with pinkies raised and an after-you-Claude approach).

Here, Van Gaal was reasonable: "Of course Drinkwater made the foul but to see whether it was in or out [of the penalty area] is very difficult."

In the United manager's favour of course is that injuries, accident and design (take your pick) have furnished him with a quick front three who have revived some of United's traditional thrust. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Martial have alleviated some of the pain of watching United through their slow possession-obsession phase.

"The start was unbelievably good - the first 35 minutes," Van Gaal declared.

The end, not so much. He still looks less likely to stay than go.

© Daily Telegraph, London.

Irish Independent

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