Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal survived his latest brush with the sack and surely the end of his distinguished managerial career thanks a drama-free win over lower-league opposition in the FA Cup on Monday. But should United fail to overturn a 2-1 deficit to Danish champions Midtjylland in the second leg of their Europa League Round-of-32 tie at Old Trafford on Thursday, his time may finally have run out.
The defeat in Denmark last week to a club only founded in 1999, the same year as the Premier League giants were celebrating the treble, was one of the low points of Manchester United’s rich history in Europe. Indeed, it was hard not to draw comparisons between that loss and the 2-0 defeat at Olympiakos two years ago under David Moyes, from which the hand-picked replacement for Sir Alex Ferguson never recovered.
Moyes was able to at least turn that tie around back at home to earn a very temporary stay of execution. And surely that is now the best Van Gaal can hope for.
It has long seemed highly improbable that the Dutchman will remain in charge beyond this summer and see out the final year of his contract. The question is whether he can last until then.
That he has remained in place thus far, despite poor results and even worse performances, is surely down more to the suspect leadership behind the scenes than any great faith in Van Gaal’s abilities. Thus far, he has already managed to live on through a run of eight matches without a win in December, which also included United’s early exit from the Champions League. Van Gaal was also able to continue after a 1-0 home loss to Southampton last month that marked 11 successive home games without a first-half goal. He even kept his job after back-to-back defeats to Premier League relegation candidates Sunderland and a Midtjylland side that had not played a competitive match in over two months.
After beating League One strugglers Shrewsbury Town 3-0 on Monday, Van Gaal may, then, even limp on too if Manchester United were to be ignominiously dumped out of the Europa League on Thursday. That fact that United have a game just three days later against Arsenal may count in Van Gaal’s favor. Yet it is surely only United’s faint hopes of making the Champions League for next season that is preventing the button finally being pushed.
One route to the competition is through the Europa League, with the other requiring United to overturn a six-point deficit to get into the Premier League top four. With defeat to Midtjylland and Arsenal, any lingering hope for United and Van Gaal would in all likelihood be extinguished in the space of 72 hours.
It is not an ideal time, then, for Van Gaal to be missing arguably his most reliable performer this season, David de Gea. Injured in the warm-up for last week’s first leg, the Spain goalkeeper will be absent again on Thursday due to knee problem. Van Gaal could also be without another of his better performers this campaign, Chris Smalling, with the defender suffering a knock against Shrewsbury and missing training on Wednesday. While Marcos Rojo is back with the squad, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Luke Shaw, Marouane Fellaini and captain Wayne Rooney all remain sidelined with injury.
Midtjylland have had a week off after recording the most famous victory in the club’s short history. And while they will know that the tie is far from done, they will be able to reflect fondly on their one previous visit to Manchester, when beating Manchester City 1-0 in a Europa League qualifier in 2008.
Prediction: It should be almost unimaginable that Manchester United will crash out to Midtjylland, yet their performances this season make it all too realistic a possibility. Regardless of what transpires, it is difficult to envisage it being a comfortable night for Van Gaal. United have rarely enjoyed stress-free victories this season and Thursday could see plenty of tension, with the Old Trafford crowd ready to revolt. United may just creep through, but not in a way that is likely to do anything for Van Gaal’s long-term prospects.
Predicted score: Manchester United 1-0 Midtjylland
D: Varela, Smalling, Blind, Riley
M: Herrera, Carrick
Lingard, Mata, Memphis
D: Romer, Bodurov, Hansen, Novak
M: Kadlec, Olsson, Sparv, Hassan, Sisto