LONDON • The hollow football remains and Louis van Gaal still appears to be out of ideas and inspiration.
His Manchester United were in last night's FA Cup fourth-round draw, but the sense is of the Dutch manager being a dismal defeat away from the same scrutiny he suffered during the festive period.
Next is today's Premier League visit to Newcastle United, then Sunday's trip to Merseyside to face Liverpool.
Both opponents are struggling with form, so to go down to Steve McClaren's men or United's fiercest rivals will not play well with Ed Woodward, United's executive vice-chairman, or supporters.
Against Sheffield United of League One in the FA Cup on Saturday, van Gaal's team were lacklustre and fortunate to win.
Only a late Wayne Rooney penalty dragged United through the teatime game in which Memphis Depay drew ironic cheers for actually taking aim at George Long's goal.
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As Depay was a 60th-minute substitute and his shot went wide, this is an apt illustration of the home crowd's deep frustration.
Afterwards, the bona fide United great Paul Scholes, who knows about entertaining the Theatre of Dreams, spoke of players and van Gaal seeming bored.
Ennui is indeed the prevailing emotion emanating from this United squad. The van Gaal factor becalms his players and the fans who pay a sizeable amount to watch them.
The manager admits that his side need to play better, but they will go in search of a third successive victory at Newcastle today.
United have eased some of the pressure on him by recording back-to-back home wins, but the victory over Sheffield United was far from convincing.
"The result is all right, but the performance was not all right," admitted the United manager.
"It's not an easy time now. It's a process and there are ups and downs, but you have to be happy as a Manchester United fan that we are in the next round and we have won the last two games."
As long as United keep winning, he has a defence.
A fourth successive Premier League win over struggling Newcastle in meetings at St James' Park would take United level on points with Tottenham Hotspur, who occupy the fourth and final Champions League qualification place and host second-place Leicester City tomorrow.
"As we enter the second half of the season, the games come quickly, so we want to build and move up the league as fast as we can," van Gaal added.
"This won't be easy, but I know that we are all determined to do this."
Only Tottenham have conceded fewer league goals than United this season, but it is in attack where van Gaal's side badly need to improve.
The manager hinted that Depay and Jesse Lingard could come into the team after coming off the bench against Sheffield United.
"I think that we have to play with wingers, who make the pitch as big as possible," he said.
"And with Memphis and Lingard, I know it is like that."
Newcastle manager Steve McClaren too is under increasing pressure after his side's poor recent league form transferred to the FA Cup with a third-round defeat by Watford last weekend.
It is 412 minutes since they last scored and the reverse at Vicarage Road was their fourth successive 0-1 loss.
They go into the game third from bottom in the Premier League and two points from safety.
Newcastle's fans too are frustrated and McClaren knows that he must halt a record that has seen his side win just four of their last 20 home games, if he is to orchestrate a climb up the table.
"We're frustrated and angry at being out of the FA Cup, and we have to channel that in a positive way against Manchester United," said the former Red Devils assistant coach.
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