Louis Van Gaal enters the last chance saloon at Manchester United
Louis van Gaal will lead Manchester United against Chelsea tonight but the match could prove to be the Dutchman's last as manager after it emerged he has serious doubts over whether he can continue in his position.
Van Gaal has spoken with United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward since Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Stoke City, the club's fourth loss in a row, and took training yesterday evening.
The 64-year-old arrived later than assistant manager Ryan Giggs, sparking speculation he was in meetings over his future, but he checked in at the Lowry Hotel with his squad last night and will take charge of the game at Old Trafford.
Woodward is believed to have told Van Gaal that he still has the support of the club, urging him to tough it out through a difficult run of results, yet the Dutchman has genuine concerns over whether he can turn their season around.
As a result, it appears inevitable that Van Gaal is approaching the end of his stormy reign. He even admitted on Saturday that he would consider resigning for the seventh time in his managerial career if results did not improve.
And it is understood the prospect of a fourth successive league defeat will force his departure. United have not won in seven games and a fifth successive defeat would equal their worst run since 1936 and surely make Van Gaal's position untenable.
Midfielder Michael Carrick has angrily hit back at "disrespectful" accusations that the squad are not fighting for their beleaguered manager, after a chastening afternoon in the Potteries on St Stephen's Day.
Yet it is clear that Van Gaal is facing the end game after 18 months in charge, and United have made no guarantees that he will see the year out as manager. Van Gaal took a wrong turn on his way to the team bus after the humiliating defeat at Stoke and it somehow seemed appropriate, considering United appear to have lost all sense of direction and the players are lost in a maze of muddled tactics and baffling team selections.
His decision to drop Wayne Rooney became almost a footnote in the post-mortem of this latest embarrassment, and this was one of the lowest points in their two years of decline.
Stoke have played far better this season and it is difficult to remember any United team looking so weak, uninspired and devoid of leadership.
It is a rebuilding job that has gone awry and requires genuine scrutiny at the very top, with Woodward equally culpable after sanctioning the £250m trolley-dash.
Carrick was the only United player to offer his thoughts, yet it will require a drastic upturn in performance and mood to produce a result against Chelsea and prove the players still support Van Gaal.
"It's not like the lads go out and don't play. I have a lot of pride in myself and in my performances and I think it is a bit disrespectful when people say that the lads aren't trying for the manager," said Carrick.
"That hurts us a lot because that is not the type of people we are. We haven't won games and it is fair enough if people criticise things that have gone wrong on the pitch.
"It's just not good enough. It's an honour to play for this club. It is such a special club and we are in a privileged position. None of us takes it for granted and it hurts us a lot."
Suddenly the visit of Chelsea has taken on even more significance for United and certainly Van Gaal, an encounter between two clubs in a state of shock at how the season has panned out.
Rooney should earn an instant recall at Old Trafford, after providing United with a faint spark as a second-half substitute against Stoke, but the likes of Memphis Depay, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini were woeful. This is the first time United have lost four competitive games in a row since 1961 and Carrick says the club need an instant response against Chelsea.
He said: "Whoever it is next we just need a win. Irrespective of who we are playing we need a win. We will be up for that, we will be positive for that and we have to win.
"This is when you find out certain things about yourself and about how you deal with tough times. And this is certainly a tough time.
"We've just got to try to turn it round. It is the only way. It is a horrible run, and it is a horrible feeling. It hurts badly."
Van Gaal, meanwhile, could not offer any assurances of an improvement before he faces his fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink.
His hint that resignation was an option was also bizarre and ill-timed, only adding to the sense of bewilderment over United's malaise.
"It's very difficult, because we have to recover," he said. "When you lose four matches in a row, it's much more difficult than after the third match.
It's like that and the pressure of the environment should increase, so it is much more difficult.
"When you lose in a top team, then it is always more difficult to cope with your environment and you cannot say that in Manchester it is much more different. You see, of course, that different players also in a different way, cope with that pressure.
"A month ago we were first in the Premier League, maybe you remember that? But we lost important games and now we have to come back, in more difficult situations than last season."