Mediocrity a saving grace for Van Gaal
With all due respect to Leicester, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the season is the number of big teams who have performed way below expectations.
No one anticipated Claudio Ranieri and his players to be showing everybody else the way, fair enough. Yet equally, at the start of the season who could have guessed that Chelsea would lose their way so spectacularly? Who would have predicted Manchester City not managing to beat any of their top-six rivals, Manchester United reaching double figures for consecutive Old Trafford first halves without a goal, or Liverpool replacing Brendan Rodgers with Jurgen Klopp? Even Arsenal, despite yesterday's impressive victory, turned out to be as flaky as their supporters inwardly feared.
There is a lot of it about. Everton arrive at Old Trafford today with many supporters pointing the finger at Roberto Martinez for mucking up their season. To an extent, an FA Cup run is buying the manager time, though the tough questions will return should Everton lose to United - and they were soundly beaten in the fixture at Goodison in October - and drop even lower in the table than 12th.
The only reason the same thing is not being said about Louis van Gaal and his expensive yet erratic squad is that by dint of the mediocrity above them United still have a slim chance of a top-four finish. "We could still finish in the top three," Van Gaal claimed, pushing his luck a little, but basing his prognosis, as ever, on pure mathematics. "Five of our eight remaining games are at home and if we take 15 points we would be very close." Although the temptation is to laugh, United not having enjoyed the sort of season that makes five home wins on the bounce appear likely, the fact is that they have won their past three league games at Old Trafford. And in that time they have welcomed several players back from injury in addition to blooding some promising youngsters, most notably Marcus Rashford.
The way Van Gaal tells it, the last bit was the easy bit. Angel Di Maria has just been moaning about how often he was played out of position at United, but Van Gaal argues he ought to realise the situation was complicated. "For each game I was having to compare Di Maria with Ashley Young, or Juan Mata, or even Jesse Lingard, and decide which was the best to choose," he said. "The answer was not always Di Maria, but with Rashford it is more straightforward. Wayne Rooney is not available, so I only have to compare Rashford with Adnan Januzaj or James Wilson."
Should United manage a top-four finish, Van Gaal insists the achievement will be greater than last year's, because injuries have made this season so much more difficult. "I had five positions injured at one point, so for sure it would be satisfying to qualify for the Champions League," he said. "Personally I would love to win the FA Cup this season, I always like a title, but for the club a top-four finish is the most important thing. I accept that."
Van Gaal also accepts that a top-four finish could be the key to seeing out his three-year contract, but refuses to prejudge the issue. "You can only evaluate properly when you have the facts at the end of the season," he said. "I know United have to win things, and I am still working on that, but as Alex Ferguson has just said you cannot change things around in one year. I have said many times it is a process."
Something else that has irked Van Gaal this season is public criticism from former players turned pundits, though he resisted any temptation to score points following Gary Neville's dismissal at Valencia. "I have nothing to say about that, I am very sorry he lost his job," he said. "I never wish for a fellow manager to be sacked, it is not a nice experience. Maybe Gary now knows that it is not so easy managing a big club, but at least he had the guts to do it. I admire him for that."
Man United v Everton, Sky Sports 1, 4.0
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