Can grasping Europa League straw save Van Gaal and Man Utd’s season?
Holly Thackeray | February 14, 2016
Europa League crown a crutch for Van Gaal?
And so, after two lacklustre Premier League matchweeks in a row which combined to aptly sum up Louis van Gaal’s stint as Manchester United manager (an unlucky last-gasp draw at Stamford Bridge, followed by a limp late loss to relegation risks Sunderland), a top four spot seems to be slipping away.
Now six points adrift of fourth place and neighbours Manchester City, who eagerly await Pep Guardiola in summer, the Black Cats debacle has to sting; meaning even Red Devils dominance in the Northwest is at risk.
Southampton and West Ham United are close behind should the Old Trafford outfit wobble further so, with just 12 league games left to play, it is going to be a close shave.
Luring the cream of the summer transfer window crop will not be so easy without the golden carrot of Champions League football to dangle, especially as Guardiola gets his feet under the Etihad table across town.
So, can Europa League exploits save both Manchester United’s season, summer transfers and, potentially, Van Gaal from the sack?
Sneaking in the back door
While there will be plenty of grumbles about focusing on Europe’s secondary competition as an alternate road to Champions League qualification, 2013 winners Chelsea have previously proven it can be a path to success.
While, Van Gaal appeared to have already admitted defeat in the top four race, as the Dutch coach told press: “It will be very difficult. After this match, the Europa League is our best route but it will not be easy because there are so many good teams.”
“We have given five points away against Chelsea and now Sunderland, so it is too much at this time,” he continued.
“I have said that also to the players, because you cannot close your eyes to it. It is still possible but the Europa League is easier I think.
“It is also not so easy, because there is also a fantastic level in that competition, so we will have to fight for it.”
Europa League no fools errand
Has the Europa League ever looked so exciting? As Coral writers recently contemplated, English teams need to start taking the competition seriously, as the Premier League top four spots become even more fiercely competitive. It is a valid alternative, but a piece of valuable silverware in its own right, and more than just a fall-back option.
If United stumble off the league pace any further, with a Europa trophy eventually their only mathematically possible path to the holy grail of Champions League football, getting past the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, former captain Gary Neville’s Valencia outfit and fellow English foes Liverpool and Tottenham will be no easy task.
The Red Devils (10/1 to win the Europa League) have never lifted this trophy before, despite their historic haul of three European Cups/Champions Leagues and, considering how they have struggled to click in attack this season, they should treat this tournament as win or bust.
Youth the Red Devils road well-travelled
If Man Utd are to make it to St Jakob-Park in May, they must learn from their Premier League mistakes. Basel is the goal to reach and, while many English clubs have been maligned for fielding youngsters in this tournament, this tactic may actually pay off for the fallen Mancunians.
Youth teams are a touchy subject at Old Trafford in the current climate, with Man City’s impressive infrastructure stealing the youth limelight, and United’s own reserve teams in disarray.
Still, the tradition of Fergie’s fledglings has legs and, if Van Gaal can take pride from something this troubled term, it is his record with the young-guns.
Among the most impressive performers of late have been centre half-come-left back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, with the teenager looking more at home than any other stop gap during Luke Shaw’s injury absence. The width and dangerous deliveries the English prospect provides has made the left-hand side United’s most lethal alongside Anthony Martial.
While, fellow defender Donald Love can expect more outings after an accomplished debut in the defeat to Sunderland, following injuries to disappointing Matteo Darmian and fellow graduate Guillermo Varela, who has made an exciting if belated step up himself.
In addition, Belgium-born midfielder Andreas Pereira and promising defensive prospect Paddy McNair should be in contention, with diligent Jesse Lingard a safe if unspectacular option out wide.
On-loan James Wilson may have found this continental competition a perfect podium if kept close to hand, but instead his shot will now likely be handed to fellow academy forward Will Keane (recent scorer of five reserve goals), should Martial require a rest.
Minnows Midtjylland a marvellous opportunity
A kind last 32 draw saw the Red Devils paired with little known Danish men Midtjylland (150/1 rank outsiders for this trophy), a tie Man Utd should win with ease, though the Jutland-based club should not be treated with complacency.
Still, the status of the Europa League as a second-class competition, plus the level opposition next up, hands Van Gaal a great chance to tinker without the same pressure or scrutiny on his picks.
Senior stars such as Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and co can potentially be sidelined without the press sideshow, allowing some of the slick play provided by younger players so far this season to shine through.
Though, while the Europa League could become a vital lifeline for Man Utd, and Van Gaal, as Jose Mourinho replacement rumours persist, failure in a second-tier tournament could compound the criticism of the club even further, making this seemingly golden chance a double-edged sword.