In just the past three months, Louis van Gaal had survived a multiple blows that have might have been expected to deal the final knockout to his distinguished managerial career. Defeats to Manchester United’s two biggest rivals in the space of just 72 hours in the coming days, though, will surely leave even the Dutchman with no avenue for recovery.
On Thursday, he will lead his team out at Old Trafford in the second leg of their Europa League Round-of-16 tie, trailing 2-0 to Liverpool. Failure there would close off one route to a precious Champions League place for next season. Follow that up with a defeat to a Manchester City side that already hold a four-point advantage in the battle for fourth place in the Premier League, and one of the richest clubs in the world will have to prepare for a second season in three years without the prestige and financial reward of Europe’s premier competition.
In 2014, when confirmation arrived that United could not reach the Champions League, David Moyes immediately paid with his job. It may just be a matter of time before the same fate falls on Van Gaal, whether or not he hung on for what would be an aimless run-in to the end of the season.
The symmetry of the failure of back-to-back managers would not only spell the end for Van Gaal but cast further spotlight on the running of the club at the very top. Liverpool would no doubt relish helping to bring about such recriminations.
Not all is smooth sailing at Liverpool, either. Indeed, just this week chief executive Ian Ayre, who has presided over transfer activity that has been far from a resounding success in recent years, announced he would be stepping down at the end of next season. But the vast majority of Liverpool fans will be confident at least that the man at the helm is one who can guide the club back to success.
Jurgen Klopp has not seen things go all his way since taking charge at Anfield in October, but they are picking up steam as the end of the season approaches. Even taking in a penalty shootout defeat to Manchester City in the final of the Capital One Cup last month, Liverpool have now gone seven matches unbeaten inside 90 minutes. They are also now only three points behind Manchester United in the Premier League, with a game in hand.
In the first leg at Anfield last week, they were certainly the pick of the two sides. In what was the first ever European meeting between England’s two most successful clubs, a goal in each half courtesy of Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino gave Liverpool an advantage that would have been even greater were it not for some stunning saves from David de Gea.
Since then Liverpool had the benefit of the weekend off, while Manchester United required a late goal to salvage a 1-1 draw at home to West Ham in the FA Cup quarterfinals. Bastian Schweinsteiger came off the bench in that game, but Van Gaal has said he will not be fit enough to start on Thursday. Meanwhile, Ashley Young and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson are unlikely to be involved, despite returning to training this week. Already, Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones are ruled out. For Liverpool, only Lucas Leiva, Danny Ings and Joe Gomez are definite absentees.
Prediction: Liverpool were comfortably the better team against an insipid Manchester United a week ago, and it is asking an awful lot of Van Gaal’s side to improve to the extent required at Old Trafford. United delivered when the chips were down in the last round of the Europa League to progress with a 5-1 win over Midtjylland, but even if they perform with similar verve on Thursday, Liverpool are unlikely to crumble to the same extent. If Liverpool can keep things tight for the first 30 minutes then the crowd are likely to get restless and the visitors should progress, perhaps even with a degree of comfort.
Predicted score: Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool