Manchester United have managed to defy a succession of uninspiring performances to remain on course to achieve their objective of a place in the Champions League, but the next five weeks will provide a seismic test of their top-four credentials. Louis van Gaal’s fourth place side take on four of the Premier League’s top six in their next five matches, starting with the visit of Tottenham to Old Trafford on Sunday.
United come into the encounter fresh from being dumped out of the FA Cup on their home turf by Spurs’ North-London rivals Arsenal on Monday. On what was a dismal night for the hosts, record signing Angel di Maria was sent off after being shown two yellow cards in quick succession for diving and then trying to grab the referee. Meanwhile, United’s next most high-profile arrival of last summer, Radamel Falcao, was forced to watch on from the substitute’s bench for the full 90 minutes.
Further doubts about the future of the on-loan striker were then raised when he was selected as one of the overage players for Manchester United’s Under-21 side 24 hours later. That led to headlines that the appearance represented a “humiliation” for the Colombian star, but Van Gaal has hit back at that suggestion and praised the attitude of his misfiring charge.
“That is one of the aspects, that I let my players play in the second squad,” he said. “I have read in a lot of papers that it is a humiliation. I don’t think so. It is a professional attitude of the manager, of the management of the club, but especially from the player. Falcao has not reacted like the media react. There is a big difference.”
“I have explained it already, five months ago. Every player who does not play, has to play sometimes. Not regularly, but sometimes, when we think that it is needed for them to play more minutes in the second team. Falcao did not play the best match in the second team but he tried to do his utmost and more I cannot ask from players.”
While Falcao struggled to make his mark for the Under-21s, defender Rafael da Silva hit a fine goal to impress Van Gaal and put himself in contention for a starting place on Sunday. If selected, the Brazilian will go up against a Tottenham side that have bounced back from defeat in the Capital One Cup final to Chelsea to win back-to-back Premier League matches. Those victories, over Swansea City and Queens Park Rangers, have left Tottenham in sixth place, just three points behind their next opponents.
It has been an impressive run for manager Mauricio Pochettino, but if things had worked out differently, it could well have been Van Gaal stepping into the opposition dugout at Old Trafford on Sunday. Following the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, and before United turned to Van Gaal following the dismissal of David Moyes, Spurs approached the Dutchman to take over in north London.
Instead, Tottenham took Pochettino from Southampton, and it’s a decision they are unlikely to be regretting, with some encouraging signs that he could finally be the manager to bring some much-needed stability to White Hart Lane. And the Argentinean has backed his positive approach to deliver a victory at Old Trafford and put themselves right in the mix for a treasured placed in the Champions League.
“We are a great time. We go to Manchester United believing in our style and we will try to win three points,” he said, reports the London Evening Standard. “We have full respect for United but we are very focused on our game, which is the most important thing. A lot of teams are fighting for the same target and we are very close, so we know it is very difficult. We have 10 games left, we will try to win at Manchester United and after that we will see what happens.”
Manchester United: Joining Angel di Maria on the suspended list, Jonny Evans continues his six-game ban. Robin van Persie remains sidelined with an ankle injury, while Marcos Rojo will undergo a late fitness test after suffering a minor problem against Arsenal.
Tottenham: Pochettino has confirmed that he has a fully-fit squad at his disposal..
Kickoff time: Noon EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra