Listening to some of Louis Van Gaal’s post-match comments on Sunday, you’d be forgiven for thinking his team had just won or maybe conceded a late equaliser. His obsession with the good chance Anthony Martial had to score, whilst ignoring the clear cut opportunity Erik Lamela missed on top of the three goals Spurs scored bordered on delusional. Whilst it may have been a tight game for a large portion of the match, Spurs’ ability to move up through the gears and quickly dispatch Manchester United with three quick-fire goals highlights the deficiencies in this United side under Van Gaal.
That defeat, along with Manchester City returning to form, meant that United’s faint hopes of a top four finish are fading fast and added further significance to their FA Cup quarter final replay at West Ham. Going into the game, the FA Cup represented United’s last hope of a trophy this campaign and perhaps Van Gaal’s hopes of keeping his job beyond the summer. Van Gaal’s legacy at United could be the signing of Martial and injuries forcing him to introduce Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Marcus Rashford into the first team.
West Ham presented formidable opposition, just one point behind United in the Premier League table, though with a superior goal difference. The Hammers came into the game with Andy Carroll fresh off a hat-trick against Arsenal at the weekend and Dimitri Payet announced amongst the list of nominations for Players’ Player of the Year.
United edged a dour first half, with the most notable moment coming when Enner Valencia blew an excellent chance by tamely shooting straight at David De Gea. The tempo picked up second half and it was Rashford who really brought the game to life with a moment of brilliance, firing the ball into the top corner after Antonio had surrendered possession in his own half. A long injury list may have forced Van Gaal to pick Rashford in the first knockout round of the Europa League, but it’s the youngster’s goals and performances that have merited him staying there.
West Ham were annoyed not to get a penalty shortly afterwards when Blind stepped across Payet in the box to bring him down, but referee Roger East waved away what looked like a foul. Maybe lady luck was shining on Van Gaal, because it wasn’t long after the penalty incident that United scored a second when a deflected shot from Martial went in off the knee of Marouane Fellaini.
West Ham staged a late comeback when a far post corner kick was headed back across the goal by Carroll and nodded in from close range by James Tomkins. The Hammers were rejuvenated and United looked vulnerable with the pressure intensifying and late drama was to come as Cheikhou Kouyate was through on goal, but De Gea saved and though Kouyate put it in after a second shot was saved, the midfielder was offside; allowing Van Gaal to breathe a sigh of relief. For all the television commentators talked about Rashford, it was De Gea that again was the man to thank for Van Gaal. The keeper again showed his class with important saves that ensured it was the Red Devils progressing through to the semi-finals at Wembley.
The uninspiring style of play and less than impressive results under Van Gaal have put the Dutch manager under pressure for prolonged periods of this season, but just when it has seemed the pressure was reaching a breaking point, he’s been able to pull a victory out of the bag and hang on in there. Maybe his name is on the cup, as the old cliché goes, drawing lower league opposition in the third, fourth and fifth round before eventually navigating the challenge of West Ham. On the eve of the third round, I identified Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea as the Premier League clubs most in need of a cup win. The latter have been knocked out, with the two former now meeting for a place in the final. Whether or not winning the FA Cup would be enough to keep Van Gaal in a job remains to be seen, but it would certainly give a positive end to an otherwise miserable season at Old Trafford.