Football: Man United have 'big chance' for top 4, says van Gaal

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford finishes past City goalkeeper Joe Hart to score the game's only goal on Sunday. The teenager's winner has fuelled his manager's confidence in his side to snatch a Champions League qualifying spot from their c
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford finishes past City goalkeeper Joe Hart to score the game's only goal on Sunday. The teenager's winner has fuelled his manager's confidence in his side to snatch a Champions League qualifying spot from their cross-town rivals.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Van Gaal is confident after derby win leaves Red Devils only one point behind fourth-placed City

LONDON • There has not been too much material for Manchester United's highlights reel this season.

But, amid all the disappointments, the lost points and fervent debate about Louis van Gaal's suitability for the job, they chose a good moment to remember some of their qualities from the days when these kind of joys were the norm rather than the exception.

On Sunday, they showed exemplary skills and grit to down their arch-rivals Manchester City 1-0 in their league derby showdown.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid - and, admittedly, it is a backhanded one - is that they played as though affronted by the suspicion that van Gaal has put together the most undistinguished team to emanate from Old Trafford for almost 30 years.

They have also unearthed a gem in Marcus Rashford, scorer of the game's decisive goal.

United's season looked to be on the rocks after they were knocked out of the Europa League by Liverpool last Thursday, but the teenager's clinically taken 16th- minute strike got them back on track.

As well as ending a run of four games without victory in all competitions, the result took United to within a point of City, who currently occupy the fourth berth.

Van Gaal is even confident that his team can outstrip their local rivals over the eight-game run-in.

"I have said that we must win this game and we have done it, so I am very happy," said the Dutchman, whose day had begun with fresh press reports linking Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho to his position.

"Otherwise the gap would have been too big if they had won or (it was) a draw - four points, with eight matches to go, it would have been very difficult.

"Now it is in our own hands. We have to win our games. We have more home matches than away matches. We don't lose so much at Old Trafford, so we have a big chance."

City were missing defensive duo Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, and Rashford gave stand-in centre-back Martin Demichelis a torrid time, streaking past him to score the game's only goal.

At 18 years and 141 days old he became the youngest scorer in a Manchester derby in the Premier League.

"Rashford is very quick and Demichelis, I think the years are counting for him," the United manager said of his former player. "He was a very good defender, but that is the life of a footballer."

It was not just the striker's finish that impressed van Gaal, though. The Dutchman was taken aback by the teenager's commitment, drive and energy, despite pulling up with cramp in the 85th minute.

No one stopped to ease the build- up of lactic acid in his muscles. Instead, Rashford picked himself up and carried on playing for the remaining five minutes, plus the additional six that were added on.

"My players fought to the end," van Gaal said. "Marcus Rashford had cramp. And yet he could still run. I have never seen that."

Rashford has scored five goals in eight appearances for United. Last year Radamel Falcao, who was on around £250,000 a week, and Angel di Maria, who cost £59.1 million, scored just four apiece.

Obviously, it has taken just a touch of youthful, untamed pace and panache to transform United's fortunes. Van Gaal can now use the international break to work on getting his derided team to land a spot in the lucrative Champions League.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'United have 'big chance' for top 4'. Print Edition | Subscribe