Back to theatre of farce

Stewards standing outside Old Trafford after the incident on Sunday. The final league game of the season between Manchester United and Bournemouth will be played today.
Stewards standing outside Old Trafford after the incident on Sunday. The final league game of the season between Manchester United and Bournemouth will be played today. PHOTO: REUTERS

United's poor season and failure to qualify for Champs League show decline under van Gaal

LONDON • Glib as this might sound under the circumstances, it felt quite apt that many left Old Trafford on Sunday talking about something that looked realistic but was found not to be viable.

That has been the story of life under Louis van Gaal for Manchester United - an experience that has had the feel of an elaborate but somehow underwhelming hoax.

Such concerns felt insignificant for a time on Sunday afternoon, with the stadium evacuated over the bomb scare that caused the postponement of their final Premier League game, at home to Bournemouth.

But United will again be absent from the Champions League next season - the second time in three years.

A dark cloud of a campaign will be embellished with the silver lining if they beat Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final on Saturday.

  • Race for Europe

    Barring a 19-goal victory against Bournemouth in the rearranged game, Manchester United will be playing in the Europa League next season.

    Manchester City complete the top four and Liverpool can join them in the Champions League if they win the Europa League final tomorrow.

    Southampton join United in the Europa League and will finish fifth if United lose to Bournemouth.

    At one stage they had been fighting for a place in the Champions League but West Ham are now relying on United for European football next season.

    Slaven Bilic's side have finished seventh but will take a qualifying spot for the Europa League if United win the FA Cup.

    Should United finish sixth and lose the FA Cup final, they will be in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League which begin in July.

But truly it has been wretched and, for a club of United's size, resources and structure, it is simply not good enough.

Victory over Bournemouth today will still take United to 66 points, level with Manchester City, but it will not see them beat their neighbours to a top-four finish.

Their goal-difference deficit to City would seem unbridgeable even if it stood at four rather than 18.

One damning statistic is that they have won just 38 out of 75 Premier League matches under van Gaal.

Another is that, of those 38 league wins, only one has been by more than three goals.

And that was the very first, a 4-0 win at home to Queens Park Rangers in September 2014, when United's supporters were still dreaming of a team built around the quixotic talents of Angel di Maria rather than the dreadfully functional game plan of van Gaal.

That was the game when van Gaal responded to praise of his team's performance by saying that he would not be carried away by results and that what really mattered was the "trajectory".

"We are building a process," he said, "and we have to play in a certain style."

The Dutchman also said that afternoon that he hoped to guide United to the Premier League title by his third year in charge, if not the second or even the first.

They hardly set the bar high in his first season, achieving a less-than-glorious fourth place with 70 points and 62 goals.

This season, with one game to go, it is 63 points and just 46 goals, which is two fewer than Sunderland and just two more than Bournemouth or relegated Newcastle United.

Missing out on Champions League football by goal difference would be an indictment of their failings, not a badge of honour.

Bournemouth's refusal to be dragged into the relegation fight was an impressive feat in their first-ever top-flight campaign and manager Eddie Howe is convinced his players will not let up today despite having little to play for.

"We won't need motivating for this one," Howe said. "Whenever you play Manchester United it's a historic occasion, so I am sure the players will be chomping at the bit to get out there."

Bournemouth have offered free coach travel to supporters travelling to Old Trafford for today's match.

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Back to theatre of farce'. Print Edition | Subscribe