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Manchester United’s win over Everton in the FA Cup semi final put them in the position of potentially winning their first trophy for three years, but is Louis van Gaal’s position as manager any safer as a result?
Interested, envious eyes were cast at the Etihad Stadium last night as Real Madrid visited Manchester City for a Champions League semi final. United’s last foray into that stage of the competition came back in 2011, and if they fail to qualify for the premier competition for next season, it will be 2018 at the earliest before they are able to get to the semis again. But by then, the process of getting into the Champions League may be a completely different proposition altogether.
The spectacle of the actual on-pitch entertainment may be dull at Old Trafford but life never is; and even victory over the Toffees failed to dampen speculation about Van Gaal’s future, with the manager appearing frustrated after the Wembley game, and a relatively new name emerging as what appears to be a serious contender as his successor in Laurent Blanc.
That remains doubtful; Blanc may be doing a fine job with Paris St. Germain but it is hardly the test of credentials that would force United’s hierarchy into a change. It has been the spectre of the available Jose Mourinho which began to heap the pressure on the United manager since December and while one may question the logic of waiting until the end of the season when there was still a very good chance of league success, it seems unfeasible that even the United board will get this appointment wrong.
Van Gaal appeared grumpy about the fact that his position was once more being publicly undermined when he had just achieved success at Wembley in the most thrilling fashion; and maybe he has a right. After all, all major decisions on the day were spot on. The selection of Marouane Fellaini was justified time and time again, as was the timing of the withdrawal, and the identity of his replacement. Anthony Martial was kept on when it appeared he was injured; Timothy Fosu-Mensah was taken off to take the heat off of him. For all the criticism the manager has faced, this was a day when he got everything right, and United survived a second half rally from Everton to evoke memories of the past with their late winner.
The victory was enjoyed, as was Monday, when Liverpool surpassed the 26 year wait for a league title that United supporters had endured, but the reminder of where United are and where they want to be again was illustrated by their once noisy neighbours on Tuesday evening. In many ways - most strikingly, the enjoyment of Cup success while others taste greater glory - the situation resembles much of the 1980’s at Old Trafford. There is an absurdly compelling subplot to the state of affairs at United which suggests they’re not a million miles away; their dysfunction betrays what, on paper, is a decent squad. And try as they might, City were unable to emphasise any kind of advantage over Real Madrid, who were of course without Cristiano Ronaldo.
This was a night for them for to make their mark but instead they just about coped with an under-strength opponent on their own patch. They may well achieve an unlikely result in the second leg - they only need to score a goal, after all - but the question marks over certain players at this level looks as if it has been answered. If City need investment in different areas then they must also look to the future - David Silva is 30, and Vincent Kompany too. They may have two or three years left in them but their absences (alongside those of Sergio Aguero) are keenly felt. Make no mistake, the significant investment in the squad which saw £100m spent on just two players last summer means it is an equally significant underachievement for City to be flagging in third, with nine losses so far in the league. Improvement will surely come under Pep Guardiola but would the change in manager be all that is required to lift this squad to be on a par with Real Madrid?
If it is accepted that Guardiola will have his own work to do then that state of further transition, which will be necessary at all of the usual ‘top 4’, may well count in United’s advantage. It cannot be reasonably argued that even with its full complement fit, their squad is as rich or balanced as City’s, but who knows what a transfer window will bring?
Particularly if, as reports suggest, Mourinho has been using his time off to scout and identify potential targets (as you would suggest would be the case no matter where he ends up).
The order of the top clubs will undoubtedly change next season but while most neutrals get behind the Leicester cause, a dose of realism may be on the cards. The excitement may be high but the standard of football hasn’t been befitting of a league professing to be the league’s best; Tottenham Hotspur have arguably been the best ‘team’ but the table doesn’t lie and their 1-1 draw with West Brom was one of familiar underachievement for Spurs fans. Those two will be representing England in the Champions League next season with the Premier League struggling to hold on to its fourth qualification spot as it is - even if Spurs look well placed to give a decent account of themselves, Leicester playing on par will be a disaster in that regard and could have a devastating ripple effect.
There is a double edged sword hanging over the league at the moment as the distinction between entertainment and quality is muddied; and, it is worth pointing out that for maybe ten to fourteen clubs in the Premier League who couldn’t even dream of qualifying for the Champions League, this season and the forthcoming cash injection which will level the playing field will provide realistic opportunities for growth which could see them enter into contention. The number of spaces may be fewer but the competition will be greater and the opportunity to grab one of the places may arguably improve with the right management and investment.
Which is why this is such an important off-season coming up for Manchester United in terms of their prospects in the immediate short term. It will need a statement being made and that statement has to be a change in manager and the requisite investment; for all the talk of a marquee signing for the last three years, Ed Woodward will be under immense pressure to deliver - because if United fail to establish themselves in the next 12 months, they could end up with a wait for success as long as their most historical rivals.
Follow Wayne Barton on Twitter @Yolkie_
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.