A comfortable victory over Aston Villa, inspired by two goals from the excellent Ander Herrera and crowned by Wayne Rooney’s magnificent strike, had seen United leap above Manchester City in the table for the first time since November 23, 2013.
When you think on January 10 this year the gap between the two clubs was 10 points, the turnaround has been remarkable. But now, as they head into their latest local squabble, there is mounting confidence around Old Trafford that United will not surrender their position.
Is it feasible for City to finish fourth?
They face Crystal Palace on Monday evening and Van Gaal believes dropping down two positions will have an effect on the psychology of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad. Even if City win at Selhurst Park, how will they handle the furnace that awaits this Sunday?
‘It plays a part in the spirit of the players - of our opponents but also our players,’ said Van Gaal. ‘We have more confidence now and when (if) they lose a point against Crystal Palace, then it is also sitting in their minds.
‘I don’t know the individual players of Manchester City so well, so I cannot judge them. But we have a lot of confidence and we haven’t lost so many times at home. The next game is going to be the decisive game.’
Van Gaal is aware recent history spells doom for United. They have lost seven of the last nine derbies, including the last four.
Remarkably, they have not beaten City at home since Rooney scored that breathtaking bicycle kick in February 2011. City, few would dispute, have the better squad but, regardless of what happens in south London on Monday night, will they be able to hold United’s momentum? Can they match their spirit?
Big games are bringing the best out of Van Gaal’s men and they are clearly relishing the opportunity that awaits.
‘It was another Manchester United, I believe,’ said Van Gaal, when asked how he reflected on the 1-0 defeat he suffered at the Etihad Stadium in November.
‘We have developed the team. That was more in the start of the process and now we are in the end of the process.
‘So I think also the confidence of our players is very high at the moment but also our performances shows that, so it’s not the same Manchester United.
‘It’s like the game against Liverpool and the game against Chelsea (on April 18) - you have to win these kinds of matches.’
With Liverpool’s defeat by Arsenal effectively ending the doubt over which sides will finish in the top four, it now becomes a question of what order Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs will be in after the final games have been played.
United’s run-in is laced with demanding assignments - aside from City and the trip to Stamford Bridge they must visit Goodison Park and host Arsenal - but they have an aura once more.
Villa, stymied by injury problems that Tim Sherwood described as ‘crippling’, simply couldn’t cope once they conceded in the 43rd minute and the manager, who was noticeably glum afterwards, can at least take solace from the fact Queens Park Rangers will not offer the same threat at Villa Park tomorrow.
United winger Ashley Young, who admitted he was disappointed to not be selected for the last round of England games, was already turning his attention to the Manchester derby as soon as this game had ended.
‘We know it will be tough but as long as we can play the way we have shown, especially in the last few games, it’s going to be a great game,’ he said.
‘Hopefully we will get the three points. Of course it would be nice but we are just taking each game as it comes.’
There was never any hint United would slip up here. They bossed the first half then went through the gears after a slow period in the second half to swat Villa aside.
Herrera, with his slick passing and industry, was terrific. Rooney’s 14th strike of the campaign, meanwhile, was sensational - a hooked volley that gave goalkeeper Brad Guzan no chance.
‘It’s about momentum, especially when you are going into this vital stage of the season,’ Young added.
‘United teams always come strong at this stage and we are showing in every game just how strong we can be - and even how we finish the game. We will enjoy this but it is all about next week.’
Original source: United on roll ahead of derby