Should Manchester United fail to score against a CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday night it will be the first time in 23 years that the club has gone four games without a goal. Louis van Gaal surely has no wish to join David Moyes in securing ‘the wrong kind’ of club record post- Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
The Dutchman, who has been the subject of increased scrutiny over his team’s style since United limped to a third goalless draw in succession on Saturday, says that “the players, the manager and the staff” are working hard to install the attacking football demanded by ever more frustrated supporters.
Yet, there are no guarantees against a CSKA side that is now on a 21-game unbeaten streak in domestic competition, albeit a period in which the Russia side lost at VfL Wolfsburg on Champions League match-day one and in the away-leg of the qualifying round at Sporting Lisbon.
Still, Leonid Slutsky’s team remains in good form coming into match-day four. CSKA drew at Terek Grozny and then beat FC Ufa since United’s 1-1 draw in Moscow two weeks ago. In between Van Gaal’s side has, with must consternation, failed to score against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Crystal Palace.
Indeed, United registered just one shot on target at Palace – Wayne Rooney’s limp free kick – and made just three opportunities from open play. It is a pattern that Van Gaal claims his team is ready to break.
“Until now there is always progress. I can remind you of the fact that you were saying, “Defending, defending, that is the problem,” said Van Gaal on Monday
“Now we are the best defenders of the Premier League, you are saying that we cannot attack. No, it is not true. It is only a moment in the process. We have stood first in the Premier League. Now we have a bad period because it is a bad period when you do not score goals. You have to score goals because that makes the difference.
“I hope that we shall score against CSKA Moscow. But I know that it is very difficult because they are very organised. They shall play more defensively than Crystal Palace for example. So it shall be very difficult but still we try to score goals.”
Despite United’s struggles in front of goal, Van Gaal is not yet ready to drop his captain, with Rooney having scored just six this season – four of Rooney’s goals came against Club Brugge and Ipswich Town. Rooney’s movement, first touch and attacking penetration were once against questionable during United’s draw in South London, although Van Gaal says that the 30-year-old “gives us more than only scoring goals.”
“He is our captain but also an example for the whole team,” said Van Gaal. “He has more credits than any other player. I have explained that to the group already, one and a half years ago. I still have confidence in Wayne Rooney.”
It means that French striker Anthony Martial is once again likely to be deployed from the left, while his manager also talked up the prospect of using the teenager on the right in future games. Martial scored in Moscow – a fine diving header to equalise – but it remains his only goal during a seven-game period in which Van Gaal has shunted the former Monaco player out to the wing.
Meanwhile, Slutsky’s team is looking to pick up its first result on the road in this season’s Champions League in what is proving to be a four-way competition for qualification from Group B. The Russian side has developed an effective counter-attacking game and is likely to sit deep at Old Trafford, using the pace of Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia, together with Ahmed Musa and former Red Zoran Tosic, on the break.
“Manchester United are Manchester United,” said Slutsky. “They remain a club of top quality. This team is obviously very good with possession so we will play a counter-attacking game. When a team has players like Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Wayne Rooney and so on, they can score at any time and against any opponent so their recent blanks don’t provide much comfort.”
After the past fortnight’s games United’s supporters may not hold the same level of confidence. Still, it is in fans’ support that Van Gaal believes his side will find the confidence to attack on Tuesday. At the weekend more than 3,000 travelling supporters chanted the name of Van Gaal’s recent critic, Paul Scholes, while urging the team to “attack, attack, attack.”
The Dutchman’s team will need to find the front-foot on Tuesday, lest the mini-rebellion instigated at Selhurst Park, should spread to Old Trafford.
“We have had a dip in our results and we have to come out of that dip,” van Gaal admitted. “That’s why we need the support of the fans. I hope, in spite of a lot of discussions, they shall support my players. The fans have always done that and I hope they will be the 12th player tomorrow again.”
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is unlikely to offer Rooney a rest, despite the forward being one of the few players who has not been rotated this season. Would the Dutchman consider changing this policy to take his captain out of the limelight for a week? Perhaps, although not this week.
“I have done that for all my players,” Van Gaal replied. “For example, Paddy McNair had a week in Ireland last week. When we think it is for the best, I will do that. It is not a big issue for me because even when I was a very young trainer-coach I did it with Jari Litmanen. It is more a big issue for the players; they are not so easy to convince.”
Elsewhere, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young may be competing for one place in Van Gaal’s side. In defence Phil Jones is available after sitting out games against Middlesbrough and Palace, while Matteo Darmian will start at right-back only if Antonio Valencia remains injured.
Meanwhile, Memphis Depay has not been selected for Tuesday’s squad. The £31 million forward was also dropped by a highly critical Dutch national coach Danny Blind this week, with the 54-year-old questioning Memphis’ value as a ‘team player’.
“Every player needs a boost when he is out of the team and Memphis is not an exception,” added Van Gaal. “The consequence of not being in the national selection is because he is not playing that well. It is always the same – a player always has to perform well, otherwise there will be other players compared and the coach will make a choice.”
CSKA defender Aleksei Berezutski and midfielder Roman Eremenko are both doubtful for the Russian side.
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Valencia, Lingard
CSKA subs from: Chepchugov, Nababkin, Chernov, Cauņa, Milanov, Golovin, Makarov
Match officials (POL)
Referee: Szymon Marciniak
Assistant referees: Paweł Sokolnicki, Tomasz Listkiewicz
Additional assistant referees: Paweł Raczkowski, Tomasz Musiał
Fourth official: Radosław Siejka (POL)
United 1-0 CSKA