In years gone by the build up to the FA Cup final would centre on the teams involved. The occasion and the prize on offer mean far more than the future of any manager. But, then, this hasn’t been any old season. Manchester United heads into the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace looking for the club’s first piece of major silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Three long years. While reaching the cup final is to be celebrated, there will be relief painted across United supporters’ faces come full-time on Saturday. The curtain will surely come down on Louis van Gaal’s era at Old Trafford.
In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.
Over the years Manchester United has entered spring chasing a league title, a domestic cup or European glory. Days out to Wembley were common, as was the tension as the Reds sought to tie up yet another title. Spring has not been so kind in recent years, though, with United having little to shout about since the spring of 2013 when the Reds wrapped up a record-breaking 20th league title on a late April night. Yet, on Saturday, United’s supporters will find themselves walking down Wembley Way once again, with the hope of FA Cup glory firmly on the mind.
Seldom has a Manchester United victory left supporters as dismayed than they are now. United’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa was another low in Louis van Gaal’s managerial reign, despite the three points keeping the Reds’ top four hopes alive. United lumbered to an unconvincing victory against one of the worst sides the Premier League has ever seen. The crowd at Old Trafford was as flat as the style of play, with fans increasingly frustrated with Van Gaal’s philosophy. Football is a game of entertainment, and the Premier League is the home of end-to-end attacking football. In truth, United’s fans are simply bored.
Another week, another chance for Louis van Gaal to undo any good previously done. After all, Manchester United’s fine performance and excellent result in the FA Cup this week will count for little if Van Gaal’s side fails to beat Aston Villa on Saturday. The Dutchman’s side couldn’t fail, could it?
“The challenge was bigger for me at Manchester United. I am sorry for Tottenham, but Manchester United are a bigger club.”
Louis van Gaal doesn’t regret choosing United over Spurs despite his side’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Van Gaal may not regret choosing United, but United fans are certainly ruing his decision. There us little doubt Spurs supporters must have chuckled at the suggestion Van Gaal is “sorry” that the London club missed out on the ‘genius’ veteran manager.
Once upon a time Manchester United’s fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur were settled before a ball was kicked. United’s record at White Hart Lane is excellent – and the side has not lost there since 2001. However, long gone are the days when Sir Alex Ferguson could construct Tottenham’s downfall with three simple words: “Lads… It’s Tottenham.” It doesn’t do the North London side justice; the balance of power is shifting in the Premier League.
For once, the international break was a welcome distraction, and not just an unnecessary fixture in the calendar. Manchester United supporters enjoyed work, head held high, knowing the team couldn’t let them down – and with a glow of recent victory over Manchester City still fresh. All good things must come to an end though and the Premier League returns with United welcoming Everton to Old Trafford, chasing fourth, and with it a Champions League spot.