UNITED Kingdom, April 4 – Louis van Gaal is convinced Manchester United are on track to claim a Champions League place from the wreckage of one of Old Trafford’s most difficult seasons in recent memory.
Van Gaal’s job as manager, in his second campaign at the club, has been the subject of widespread speculation since United’s early exit from the Champions League group stage in December.
That failure was compounded by United’s defeat in the second-tier Europa League by arch-rivals Liverpool last month.
However, van Gaal, who has been tipped to make a summer departure to make way for Jose Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager, will lead his team into next Sunday’s game against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in confident mood following their 1-0 win over Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday.
That was United’s fourth win in five domestic league games and left them just a point behind fourth-placed Manchester City, currently occupying the final Champions League spot on offer to English clubs.
“I said in the dressing room after the match that it was very important to win today, otherwise the victory against (Manchester) City was worthless,” said van Gaal.
“We keep in touch with City, one point behind, and we keep in touch with Arsenal, five points behind,” the veteran Dutch boss added.
“We have to play Tottenham (next), not an easy match, but normally we are playing very well against the top teams. If we continue like that, I am very happy.”
Van Gaal has been under fire from critics and fans alike, yet he can make great strides with his young squad in what will be a critical month of April.
Home matches against doomed Aston Villa and struggling Crystal Palace offer six points to a team that has grown in stature at Old Trafford in recent weeks, while Van Gaal can steer United into the FA Cup Final by first winning an admittedly tough replay with West Ham and then a Wembley semi-final against Everton.
Van Gaal now needs to manage his players wisely at the stage of a season where fatigue can creep in, especially with international demands thrown in as well.
– Blind faith –
Daley Blind, who was superb in policing the menace of Belgium striker Romalu Lukaku at Old Trafford, is a case in point.
“Daley Blind has played nearly all the matches, so I need to give him rest,” said van Gaal. “I don’t want to, because he is playing very well. I shall give him two days off, so then he is alright, I think.”
Anthony Martial, who scored United’s lone goal against Everton on Sunday, has also been a willing workhorse in United’s cause.
“I have already said that Anthony Martial, with his age (20) is an exception, because he has also played every match,” said van Gaal.
“To play every match then you have to be very strong and consistent, because every week I shall compare every player with his competitor, so it is fantastic what he is doing.”
Everton manager Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, has to ponder a fresh round of criticism from Toffees fans as he prepares for the weekend trip to Watford.
Told that many of Everton’s 3,500 following at Old Trafford had booed at the final whistle because they were “fed up”, Martinez replied: “We all are. You can hear our boos in the dressing room.”
Martinez wants to take 12th-placed Everton forward without panicking.
“We are a club where there has been a bit of a change of generation,” he said.
“A lot of players have come in. Incredible young talent needs know-how and lessons, and to develop,” the Spaniard added.