herald

Thursday 17 August 2017

LVG is living on borrowed time

Dutchman faces five days which may finally break him

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

Louis van Gaal must wake up some mornings and wonder how fate has delivered him to a place where Marouane Fellaini is the best option he has to save his job.

If he even wants to save his job at this stage. He doesn't look like a man enjoying any of this. He ploughs into every wave of opposition with his dogged, old-school values and comes up the other side diminished each time.

At some point, he will go under and won't surface again.

If everything goes the way form suggests and Liverpool take full advantage of the 2-0 lead they won in the first-leg of this Europa League Round of 16 tie at Old Trafford this evening, van Gaal will be defending himself from more calls for his immediate sacking tomorrow morning and the circus will move on to the Etihad on Sunday.

The Premier League fixture computer has an ironic sense of humour and the last thing van Gaal needed sandwiched between two games which are already loaded with significance was a Manchester derby as a filling.

And even if he somehow staggers through the next four days, he must then face Upton Park on Tuesday and West Ham's last game at the old stadium.

Nobody gives him much of a chance of clinging on in the FA Cup, which would leave him high and dry by the middle of next week, with nothing to play for but the Europa Cup qualification spot and an outside chance of fourth place.

He could be forgiven for regretting the moment he took a call from Ed Woodward and agreed to take over from David Moyes, the first good man sacrificed on the altar of Alex Ferguson's legacy.

Eccentric

Van Gaal is hardly an endearing creature. His image and his behaviour mark him as, at the very least, eccentric and certainly demanding.

Over the years, we have become used to his authority and his arrogant demeanour and it is not pretty to watch him so reduced by the mincer that is Old Trafford.

When he hit the deck in an eye-catching dive during the 3-2 win over Arsenal a few weeks back, it may well have made him instantly more appealing to social media but it showed how far from his normal, rigid self he has strayed.

This is the man who came marching into Manchester off the back of an unlikely World Cup run with a functional Holland and seemed to assume that he would have a squad to work with without fretting too much about the details.

That's why he ended up asking Fellaini to be his band-aid. He has nobody else.

Yesterday, he wouldn't confirm whether Fellaini would start against Liverpool but it would be a big surprise if he doesn't. Without Wayne Rooney, Manchester United have no focus and it's hard to miss the Belgian's bobbing afro.

"I cannot say if Fellaini plays because then I give away part of my line-up and I don't want to do that," he said.

"But Fellaini has his way of playing and he can give us a lot of qualities and has contributed in a lot of games in a very good way."

Unhappy

Many would disagree. Van Gaal urged United fans last week to stop living in the past but Ferguson's memory is still far too fresh for that advice to stick and a player like Fellaini would never have been signed in the glory days.

He was an unhappy accident, a desperate attempt by Moyes to add strength to a squad which Ferguson left threadbare and an unlikely crutch for any manager.

United were formless and confused in the first leg at Anfield. Tonight, Liverpool hold all the cards. Exuding calmness and behaving like a gawky tourist on his first visit to the Theatre of Dreams, Klopp insisted that his team have the full Old Trafford experience including training twice on United's hallowed turf.

With a 2-0 lead, he can afford to take some time to drink it all in and he is clearly keen to make sure his players don't become overwhelmed by the experience Old Trafford presents.

Van Gaal has almost been overwhelmed by it all but he's a survivor and he's fighting for his reputation.

"The players and myself want to survive and go to the next round. That's the pressure and the challenge. It's a big challenge for the players and the fans," he said.

Europa league: Manchester Utd v Liverpool (Live SETANTA IRL/BT Sport Europe 8.05)

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