Louis van Gaal
Every weekend has been a Big Weekend for Louis van Gaal but, let’s be honest, it almost doesn’t matter anymore.
The Europa League defeat at Liverpool coming on the back of the loss at West Brom took United back to the dark days of December, when Van Gaal really should have been sacked. Despite all the conflicting noises and agendas within the club, it seems clear the Dutchman will go in the summer. He knows it, the players know it, and it shows in their performances.
Regardless of their shambolic league and European form, though, United are two wins from the FA Cup final. Unfortunately, in Sunday’s quarter-final, they come up against the only in-form side left in the competition.
West Ham have already held United at Old Trafford this season and given thire form ahead of the clash between the Premier League’s fifth and sixth-placed sides, you would not lump the mortgage on United making the last four. Unless you were Degs.
Van Gaal has spoken of his personal desire to win the FA Cup and to add to domestic cup wins with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The manager admitted that the Europa League was the priority for the club given the carrot of a Champions League place but the FA Cup may as well now take priority. It’s been 12 years since United won the damned thing, during which time Arsenal have enjoyed three triumphs to overtake the Red Devils as the competition’s most successful side.
After the pathetic showing at Liverpool, a hostile atmosphere could await Van Gaal and his players again at Old Trafford. The manager faces another daunting week, by the end of which, it is not unthinkable that United could be five games without a win and effectively out of all competitions. But the board’s refusal or inability to take decisive action earlier in the season has brought them to this point. Even if United see off West Ham, another shambles is surely lurking around the corner.
“I don’t see it as a make-or-break,” said the Everton boss ahead of the FA Cup quarter-final clash with Chelsea. He’s being either disingenuous or naive.
The Toffees sit in 12th place in the Premier League, one place below where they finished last season. Their form suggests a late surge to respectability is unlikely so the FA Cup is perhaps the one thing that may spare Martinez some searching questions this summer.
The Spaniard is relentlessly positive and that, coupled with his shiny tan loafers, has brought him many admirers. But many Evertonians have got him sussed as little more than a bulls*** merchant and they won’t accept another bottom-half finish without the sweetener of some Wembley glory.
With only one win in their last eight Premier League games at Goodison Park, Martinez has to inspire change quickly. The only home victory and clean sheet since November 21 came against Steve McClaren’s wretched Newcastle.
New investor Farhad Moshiri could be there on Sunday, with Martinez labelling his attendance the start of “a new era”. The FA Cup might be Martinez’s only chance to be part of that new era.
Having exited the Champions League on Tuesday after defeat to PSG, the quarter-final at Goodison takes on heightened importance for the struggling Premier League champions.
Guus Hiddink remains unbeaten in domestic competitions and the Dutch manager will be hoping for a repeat of his first spell in charge of the Blues when he crowned a solid tenure by winning the FA Cup, beating Everton in the 2009 final.
Hiddink readily admits Chelsea are in a transitional phase and that he does not want the job permanently. But apart from the personal satisfaction of winning at Wembley again, the FA Cup offers the chance for Chelsea to round off a dire season on a positive note. It is also one way of ensuring the Blues do not miss out on European involvement next season for what would be the first time in 19 years.
Of course, Chelsea are still three wins away from that and they must overcome fellow underachievers Everton, who have not been beaten by the champions this season and have scored six goals while taking four points along the way.
For whoever loses at Goodison, their season is done.
“We have a situation in the Premier League that is certainly causing us concern. But this is a great opportunity for us.”
Handsome Pards has summed up Palace’s situation quite succinctly there. After a very bright opening half of the season, Palace have dropped like a stone and currently sit rock-bottom of the form table over the last 10 games – even worse than Villa, Norwich and Newcastle.
The only bright spot through that dark run was the 1-0 fifth-round win at Tottenham. But Palace have failed to build on that victory, having lost two and drawn one of the following three matches.
The Madejski is the one place that even Pards accepts he is not well liked. King Al left the Royals under a cloud in 2003 and the hosts would love nothing more than to bring him down a peg or two while booking a place in the semis at Wembley for the second consecutive season.
At the time of writing, any one of three different parties could be in charge of the Magpies on Monday night at Leicester.
The club have handled appallingly the imminent sacking of Steve McClaren, who has been strung along all week while the hierarchy pin down Rafa Benitez. Given the time Newcastle have so far taken, it’s not unlikely that neither will be in the dug-out at the King Power.
Leicester was the scene of Newcastle’s biggest disgrace last season. John Carver took his side there in May and the manager accused his centre-half Mike Williamson of getting himself sent off intentionally in their eighth straight defeat.
After that shambles, Newcastle approached McClaren about coming in early but the then-Derby boss refused, undermining what precious little authority Carver had remaining. Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley and co. apparently haven’t learned.
As a Newcastle fan, you’d like to think that last season’s game was as bad as a trip to the east Midlands could get. Don’t bet on that unless some clarity arrives before kick-off.
The lunchtime trip to Norwich offers City the chance to record back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the time in almost five months. Despite being so ridiculously inconsistent, Manuel Pellegrini’s side remain in with a shout of reclaiming the title, but there is no more margin for error.
Currently 10 points and three places off the pace, City can turn the screw on their title rivals with a convincing win at Carrow Road. It was there that their 2012 fightback began in earnest, when the Canaries were stuffed 6-1 by Roberto Mancini’s side as they set about overhauling a five-point deficit from Manchester United.
If City do still harbour title ambitions – and they should – then they must put aside thoughts of the Champions League second leg against Dynamo Kiev next Tuesday until after the trip to East Anglia.
The Canaries’ season will be defined by the four games after Manchester City’s visit, but with confidence plummeting and Alex Neil struggling for answers, a pummelling this weekend will send the hosts into a pivotal stretch in dreadful mood.
After City, Norwich face West Brom, Newcastle, Palace and finally, Sunderland. After nine games without a win – eight defeats and a soul-destroying draw with West Ham – Neil’s side need something positive to grasp ahead of the biggest four weeks of their campaign.
Cliche though it is, the first goal will be crucial. Norwich have yet to lose under Neil when they have scored first. Only, this season, they’ve gone behind in 21 of their 29 matches. If the visitors score early, they could do some real damage to Norwich’s already-battered confidence and their goal difference. Should Norwich hold out, given how inconsistent the visitors have been, perhaps they could pick up a bonus point or even three.
Tottenham are now winless in three games in all competitions, having lost at West Ham and Borussia Dortmund, with a missed opportunity against 10-man Arsenal sandwiched between the two away trips.
Pochettino rested Harry Kane, Eric Lamela and Eric Dier in Dortmund but most of his other changes were forced upon him. That said, Spurs’ priorities were clear at the Westfalenstadion. They have a sniff of an unlikely title and the manager’s reluctance to go full strength in Germany is understandable.
If confidence has faded somewhat, in Aston Villa they face the perfect opposition to top it up. But the last week and a half has given Tottenham and their manager no margin for error at Villa Park.
After a record-breaking run of clean sheets, two defeats and a home draw with Sunderland have left the Saints’ season in danger of fizzling out.
The first of those defeats, a 2-0 reverse at Bournemouth, worried Koeman enough for the Dutchman to criticise his players for a lack of motivation and effort. Chelsea then enjoyed a late triumph at Stamford Bridge before the Saints needed a last-gasp equaliser to take anything from a home game with struggling Sunderland.
Having been touted as European contenders for much of the season, it would be a shame to see Southampton limp towards May and even slip outside the top half. They currently sit in ninth, but within a game of being caught by everyone down to 12th. Koeman has freely admitted his desire to manage at a higher level so the manager needs to reawaken his side at Stoke on Saturday before they undo all their good work from the first half of the campaign.