STOKE-ON-TRENT, December 25- Embattled Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has been involved in a very public battle to save his job in the days leading up to Saturday’s game at Stoke City.
Van Gaal’s future is looking increasingly uncertain after a run of six matches in all competitions without a victory, coupled with a series of uninspiring performances.
A group-stage exit from the Champions League earlier this month was a significant disappointment for a club who won the trophy in 2008 and have reached two finals since.
But of more concern was the lack of attacking threat in successive Premier League defeats against promoted teams Bournemouth and Norwich City.
United managed only two shots on target as Norwich won 2-1 at Old Trafford last weekend and there is a strong feeling that failure to win at Stoke on Saturday or at home to Chelsea on Monday may cost Van Gaal his job.
The manager’s frustration at the public discussion of his future led him to walk out of a press conference on Wednesday after answering just three questions.
It has not helped Van Gaal that Jose Mourinho, a potential candidate to replace him, is available after being sacked by Chelsea last week.
Publicly, at least, Van Gaal retains the support of his players as he attempts to lift a side who have fallen to fifth in the table, nine points behind leaders Leicester.
“It’s not nice when you’re getting criticised after every game,” said captain Wayne Rooney.
“It’s tough for the players to deal with. We get hurt because we’re proud people and proud to play for Manchester United. When it’s not going right, it’s hard to take and frustrating.
“We’re working hard and fighting for the manger to try to get results and turn the season around. It’s important we all stick together.”
Van Gaal will once again be without Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who serves the final game of a three-match ban imposed after he admitted a Football Association charge of violent conduct last month.
– Stoke resilience –
Matteo Darmian remains unavailable with a hamstring injury sustained in the Champions League defeat at Wolfsburg earlier this month, which means Daley Blind is set to continue at left-back.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are over recent injury problems, though, and both came through 90 minutes in central defence against Norwich.
United’s opponents add intrigue to such a key fixture, with Stoke managed by Mark Hughes, who won two Premier League titles as a player at Old Trafford in addition to scoring the decisive goal against Barcelona in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final.
Hughes has watched with interest the troubles at United and can understand the pressure that Van Gaal will be under.
“There’s a responsibility to perform well at Manchester United,” Hughes said. “They’re on a huge stage and playing for a world-renowned club.
“It’s a huge demand to play for Manchester United, and some players haven’t been able to deal with it.”
Stoke have settled in mid-table after being bottom in mid-September, although league form has been patchy of late, with just one win in their last four and a 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace last Saturday.
They do have a resilience about them, however, with four of their six league victories this season being by a 1-0 scoreline, including a win over champions Chelsea at the Britannia Stadium last month.
Defender Geoff Cameron, who has been playing as a holding midfielder of late, remains absent with a hamstring injury.
Charlie Adam has been unsuccessful when played in that position, so Glenn Whelan is likely to be the sole midfielder in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 set-up.
Striker Peter Crouch is back in training following a recent groin problem, but is not ready for a comeback.