MANCHESTER, April 1 – Manchester United have edged their way back into contention for a Champions League place in recent weeks, with manager Louis van Gaal declaring that a top-three finish is still realistic.
Van Gaal has been buoyed by the public support in recent days of Alex Ferguson, who called on United fans to be patient as the current manager awaits his first trophy with the club after almost two full seasons in charge.
Having been six points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City in mid-February, United are now just one point behind going into the weekend’s fixtures.
A 1-0 win at City two weeks ago was United’s third victory in four league matches, and softened some of the disappointment that came with a Europa League exit at the hands of bitter rivals Liverpool.
Sunday’s home game against Everton offers the opportunity to keep the pressure on in the chase for fourth, but Van Gaal has set his sights higher than that.
“We are still capable of being in the top three in the league,” he said. “We believe in it, and the players believe in that, which is much more important. We can win the FA Cup. We have a lot to fight for.
“We have five matches at home and three away, and that is also a benefit, I think. I hope that we show that in the next match.
“If you have to succeed a man like Ferguson, the expectations are very high. He mentioned in his interview that he did not win a trophy for nearly four years. That’s a good example that you cannot change a team in one year. I have said before it is a process. Many times I was laughed at, but it is like that.”
– Lukaku ambition –
United will be without midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger for the Everton game, as he is likely to miss the rest of the season after tearing knee ligaments while training with Germany during the recent international break.
United captain Wayne Rooney is not ready to return against his former club, having been absent since mid-February with knee ligament damage.
But the England striker has resumed light ball work in training and is likely to play for the club’s Under-21 side soon –- either against Chelsea on Monday or Middlesbrough seven days later.
Everton are facing increasing uncertainty over the long-term future of Romelu Lukaku, which manager Roberto Martinez is doing his best to play down as he attempts to lift the club from the lowly position of 12th in the table.
The Belgium forward said during the recent international break that “it would be nice” to play in the Champions League next season, while his agent Mino Raiola has suggested that Juventus, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are all interested.
Everton have next to no chance of qualifying for the competition themselves, lying 13 points adrift of the top four with nine games to play, yet Martinez is adamant that he is not disturbed by the ambition of his 25-goal leading scorer.
“It’s not unsettling at all,” Martinez said. “That should be the aspiration of everyone to be as good as you can.
“Everton want to be in the Champions League. We want to be competing to win titles. We reached the semi-finals of the League Cup this season. We are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. We need players who can carry the expectations of the club.”
Everton’s ambitions have been thwarted by dreadful home form, but they have suffered only one Premier League defeat on their travels this season –- at Arsenal in October –- and no other side can match that record.
Centre-back John Stones will be fit to play some part on Sunday, having recovered from a minor knock suffered while playing for England on Tuesday.
Meanwhile utility player Bryan Oviedo is fit following a recent chest infection and forward Kevin Mirallas is available after serving a suspension.