The gloom that has been descending on Manchester United lifted a little when they beat Shrewsbury in the FA Cup on Monday, but manager Louis van Gaal remains a man facing problems.
United’s manager has no margin for error as he attempts to maintain his team’s chances of a European trophy when they face Midtjylland at Old Trafford today.
United’s 2-1 defeat away to the previously unheralded Danish champions in their Europa League round of 32 first leg last week was a significant embarrassment for Van Gaal, with the local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, calling for him to be sacked the day after the match.
At least United managed to avoid further humiliation at third-tier Shrewsbury, a team two divisions and 50 league places below them, but even their convincing 3-0 victory was small comfort.
Van Gaal—whose team are fifth in the Premier League, 12 points behind leaders Leicester—is fully aware that improved performances are required quickly, with Jose Mourinho apparently waiting in the wings, ready to take over should the United hierarchy decide to ditch the Dutchman.
“I was very pleased with my players against Shrewsbury,” Van Gaal said. “They were very committed.
“Now we have to beat Midtjylland, but it will not be easy, because they are well organised. We saw that during the first leg.
“Everything is possible, though. We are still in three competitions, so we have to fight,” he added.
The United manager will make a late check on the fitness of goalkeeper David de Gea, who had to withdraw from the first leg in Denmark after suffering a knee injury in the warm-up.
Sergio Romero, who has played in each of the last two games, will continue if De Gea does not recover in time.
United captain Wayne Rooney remains unavailable with the knee injury that is set to keep England’s record international goalscorer out until late March, while forward Will Keane, winger Jesse Lingard and defender Cameron Borthwick-Jackson all picked up knocks during the win at Shrewsbury.
The rising injury toll means Van Gaal’s squad is becoming increasingly stretched, particularly in the full-back positions, with Matteo Darmian, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw all out of action too.
Van Gaal has admitted to learning plenty from Midtjylland, even copying one of their free-kick routines to score against Shrewsbury; with Juan Mata floating in United’s second goal as Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera and Lingard all charged out from offside positions.
“We learnt that because we have analysed Midjytlland, and saw that they were doing that,” the veteran manager explained. “We thought it was offside, but we asked the referees at the game, and they said: ‘No. There’s no offside. You can do that’.”
Last Thursday’s victory over United was Midtjylland’s first competitive match in more than two months, with the Danish Superligaen yet to resume following its winter break.
Jess Thorup’s team won the Danish title for the first time in their history last season, a vindication of the statistical analysis model used to assess potential signings that was introduced by their English owner Matthew Benham.
They currently lie third in their domestic league, but were good value for their first-leg victory over United, which has given them hope of claiming a second English victim of the season, having knocked Southampton out of the Europa League in August.
Midtjylland midfielder Kristoffer Olsson, on Arsenal’s books as a youngster, has suggested that United are a team lacking leadership.
“They play a little slow,” Olsson said. “I don’t know how they usually are, but I felt that they didn’t have any real leader.
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