Its crunch time for EPL top four


On he expressed a tongue-in-cheek hope that Ferguson will pay but, more pertinently, the current United manager hopes to have some genuine and tangible progress to talk about.

Ferguson, it must be said, has waited a long time for such news. The United team he left to David Moyes moved only backwards while this season’s version has only occasionally appeared genuinely purposeful under Van Gaal.

Now, though, towards the end of this peculiar Barclays Premier League season, life at the business end of the table has become a little more interesting.

Successive United victories over Tottenham and Liverpool have left both those teams listing a little. In second, meanwhile, Manchester City, one senses, have stopped looking ahead and started to glance over their shoulder.

Saturday, for example, a win for United over Aston Villa would take Van Gaal’s team above City, who don’t play until Monday night’s engagement at Crystal Palace. Then, a week on Sunday, the two Manchester teams meet.

No wonder Van Gaal was sounding perky on Friday. All of a sudden, places two, three and four in the Premier League have begun to look rather interchangeable and it’s United who look in decent shape to benefit.

‘The comments of United legends are always important because they have a lot of fans,’ said Van Gaal on Friday when asked about Gary Neville’s suggestion that the recent United performance at Liverpool was one of the best he could remember.

‘And fans are listening to the legends so it’s nice for Manchester United. It’s nice for the players, and also nice for the manager when legends are saying that. But I think that if, for example, Sir Alex Ferguson says that then I am more proud because he can judge as a manager much better than ex- players what is the achievement in such a game.

‘Sir Alex is always on his way (travelling) so it’s difficult to speak with him. But we have made an appointment and he shall pay - that is very important!’

Back from a break in Amsterdam with his wife, Van Gaal looked ready for the challenges ahead. He remains cautious and understandably so.

His team have let him down before this season and United still have each of the current top three to play between now and mid-May.

Nevertheless, he is aware of problems that have currently mounted in front of Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers since United beat his team 13 days ago and knows that defeat at Arsenal this lunchtime could all but end the Merseyside club’s challenge for fourth place.

All season United have been allowed to keep in touch with the top four simply because of other teams’ failings. Now Van Gaal has reason to hope his team’s improved form can take them somewhere more meaningful.

Asked if second place was now a realistic possibility, the United manager said: ‘Of course. I cannot deny that because we have Manchester City at home next week.

‘We have the strongest record at home so it’s possible. But Manchester City is a top team so it shall not be easy.

‘It’s better to be second or third. I would be pleased with fourth, but I want to be first. And my players want to be first. And when it’s not first, it’s second.’

For Rodgers and his staff, the last fortnight will have been a long one. Defeat is always harder to deal with - to move on from - when it is immediately followed by an international break.

If his team are to get the result they need at Arsenal on Saturday they will have done very well indeed, given the absence of the suspended Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard and injury concerns over striker Daniel Sturridge.

Arsenal remain well-placed. They have lost one domestic game in 14 since defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day, leaving Manuel Pellegrini’s City team looking rather vulnerable in second place as they try to make something of a season that already has the word ‘disappointment’ written right through it.

On Friday, Van Gaal conceded that it was ‘mathematically possible’ for United to win the league.

That is a fanciful notion and he knows it but he and everybody else associated with the club would certainly enjoy the sense of discomfort City will undoubtedly feel if they find themselves looking at the backs of United’s heads by the close of play tonight.

City only have themselves to blame for what may yet become something of a predicament. United have, by common consensus, been scratchy at best this season but if City find themselves in their wake tonight then what does that say about them?

At the root of all this, of course, is that this remains a rather average Premier League. It contains only one very good side and they, Chelsea, have waned themselves a little recently. From a morass of mediocrity, however, somebody could yet benefit.

Van Gaal will only hope that he is on course for an interesting lunch with the one man who has seen it all, and much more, many times before.

Daily Mail

Original source: Its crunch time for EPL top four