For Manchester United, and quite possibly their manager Louis van Gaal, it is now do-or-time. After their Europa League exit against Liverpool on Thursday, Sunday’s Manchester derby represents a must-win fixture if they are to realistically keep their hopes alive of making next season’s Champions League. Failure to do so would surely see Van Gaal pay with his job.
United go into the meeting with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in sixth place in the Premier League table, four points behind their neighbors in the battle for the fourth and final Champions League place. Asked whether it was do or die, Van Gaal did not shy away from the significance of the contest.
“I think so,” he said in his pre-match press conference, reports Sky Sports. “We are now four points behind so you have to win otherwise the gap is bigger and bigger and the matches that you have to play are not too many.
“I think the gap is then seven points and we have to play only another eight matches, so then it is very sharp to recover from that gap. It is still possible, but it is difficult because West Ham United are also in front, it is not only City.”
On the question of whether the match would be similarly decisive for him personally, though, Van Gaal hit back at the constant speculation over his future.
“I think for four months [the press] have been writing that I shall be sacked, or not? Four months already. Do you think that is logical or normal?” he said. Expectations can be too high. Our purpose was to reach the top three because we wanted to do a bit better than last year. Yes [we have fallen below expectations], but then you have to analyze the circumstances, how I have to work. I am never feeling that I am under pressure. I do what I have to do.”
Van Gaal’s counterpart across Manchester knows all about being subjected to constant debate over his future. After months of rumors, it was announced at the start of last month that Manuel Pellegrini would be stepping aside at the end of the season with Pep Guardiola coming in as his replacement. And he has now backed Van Gaal to come through what is quite possibly the most difficult time in his distinguished managerial career.
“I think that Louis van Gaal has a lot of experience,” Pellegrini said ahead of the derby. “When you are managing big teams, you can expect to receive criticism if you do not win. He has the experience to manage that situation.
“I always, not only taking about Van Gaal, but any manager in a bad moment you want to support him but I don’t think he has any problems with the experience he has of managing the big teams in his career. Maybe he is not in a good moment but he knows how to manage.”
Pellegrini has his own concerns, though. Since Guardiola’s appointment was announced, Manchester City have taken just seven points from six Premier League matches to see them drop 15 points off the top, albeit with two games in hand over leaders Leicester City. They also have to worry about looking over their shoulders. Not only are Manchester United a threat, but West Ham are now just a point behind in fifth place.
Their prospects in this season’s Champions League, though, are much brighter. On Tuesday, Manchester City secured a place in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in the club’s history after progressing past Dynao Kiev. The second leg came at a cost, though, with captain Vincent Kompany suffering another in a long line of calf injuries, which means he faces a race against time to be back before the end of the season. City are already without Kevin de Bruyne and Fabian Delph, although could have Nicolas Otamendi available after he suffered a knock in midweek.
Manchester United now have Antonio Valencia back as an option after he made his return off the bench in Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw, Phil Jones and Ashley Young are all still out, however, while Ander Herrera is a doubt.
Prediction: Both clubs have underachieved massively in the Premier League this season and neither can afford a defeat on Sunday. Injuries are also playing a part for both teams right now. But it is City that have the greater quality and, given they should be fired up for the occasion, they should emerge victorious.
Predicted score: Manchester City 2-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: Noon EDT
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra