Louis van Gaal was greeted with another chorus of boos at Old Trafford on Saturday at the climax of his Manchester United side’s fifth goalless draw in nine matches. Yet the material impact of such scoring struggles has so far been limited, with the club still just three points off the top of the Premier League. That will all change should he oversee another goal drought on Tuesday.
As a result of a goalless draw at home to PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago, Manchester United now need to beat Wolfsburg, in Germany, to be sure of making it through to the Champions League knockout phase. United go into the game occupying the second qualifying spot in Group B, a point behind Wolfsburg. But with PSV Eindhoven, a further point back, taking on the group’s bottom club CSKA Moscow at home in the final round of fixtures, a victory will in all likelihood be needed if Van Gaal’s side is to reach the last 16.
Should they come up short, it would be the first significant failure of Van Gaal’s reign. While there has been far from uniform approval of the entertainment value offered up during his 17-month reign, he has achieved the main goals set out when he took over following the disastrous solitary season under David Moyes. Having got United back into the top four, the team made it through a playoff to earn a return to the lucrative and prestigious Champions League group phase. In the Premier League they remain right in the title race. But to bow out of the Champions League before the real serious business begins, especially to a team in PSV, who United spent £25 million weakening with the signing of Memphis Depay in the summer, would not be a good look for the world’s third richest club.
Adding to Manchester United’s challenge, although some may disagree given his dismal form this season, will be the absence of Wayne Rooney. The club’s captain remains absent with an ankle injury, and, while he has hardly been setting the scoring charts alight of late, United’s attack fared no better in his absence against West Ham at the weekend. And Rooney is far from the only player unavailable to Van Gaal. Morgan Schneiderlin has become the latest player to join an injury list that also includes Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw.
Wolfsburg have their own fitness concern, in the shape of a back problem that is continuing to trouble Brazil international midfielder Luiz Gustavo. Coach Dieter Hecking already knows he will be without the man most responsible for earning Wolfsburg’s place in this season’s Champions League. And if United are able to pull off the victory, they may want to send a gift of appreciation to their neighbors Manchester City. It was City that signed Wolfsburg’s outstanding player of last season, Kevin de Bruyne, for £54 million in August. Without him they have struggled to reach the same heights this campaign.
However their only defeats at their home Volkswagen Arena have come against the mighty Bayern Munich and, on Saturday, the Bundesliga’s second-placed team, Borussia Dortmund, courtesy of a goal deep into injury time from former Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa. In the Champions League, they have beaten both CSKA Moscow and PSV Eindhoven on home soil, helped by the attacking quality of Germany internationals Julian Draxler and Andre Schürrle, as well as Dutch target man Bas Dost.
Prediction: Manchester United did come out on top when the two sides met at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign, but Wolfsburg, both in the Bundesliga and the Champions League, have been a much tougher proposition at home than on the road. The loss of Luiz Gustavo as the anchorman in midfield would be significant, but still United have struggled painfully to break down opponents this season. Wolfsburg will have no reason to take undue risk, knowing that a draw will ensure their progress. Ultimately, United look lightly to come up short.
Predicted score: Wolfsburg 1-1 Manchester United