MANCHESTER (AFP) - Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal reacted angrily to suggestions that his club's supporters had voted with their feet by missing a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
The Premier League side announced a near-capacity crowd of 75,277 for the win which maintained their bid to finish in the top four and claim a place in next season's Champions League.
But it is understood that figure includes season ticket holders, regardless of whether or not they attend, and there were uncharacteristic empty seats at Old Trafford as full-back Matteo Darmian scored his first goal for the club and forced Damien Delaney into an own goal for the opener.
"I didn't see a lot of empty seats," snapped the Dutchman. "But you saw that because you wanted to see it."
However, Van Gaal did see England centre-forward Wayne Rooney continue his comeback from two months out with a knee injury in a deeper midfield role - a solid 75-minute performance that may have put him in contention for a start in the weekend FA Cup semi-final against Everton.
"Now he has played 75 minutes so I build up his capacity in the matches, which I have done also with the other players, like Marcos Rojo," said Van Gaal. "He was the player who switched the play and I liked that very much.
"No player has a fixed position. I use a player where I think they can give a contribution in that game. It was more of a midfield role today also because of the way Crystal Palace was playing.
"I don't want to change (Marcus) Rashford so I have to look for another position for Wayne. He played there also last year. I am very happy with the way he performed."
Rashford, the exciting teenage striker, suffered a slight contact injury against Palace, as did defender Chris Smalling, although Van Gaal is hopeful both will recover in time to play Everton at Wembley.
The comfortable victory, coupled with Everton's 4-0 defeat in the Merseyside derby at Liverpool on the same evening, suggests United will be strong favourites for the semi-final, although Van Gaal insisted that all he cared about was collecting the victory against Palace.
"I want three points," said Van Gaal. "That is the most important thing. We needed three points and that is what I said to my players. "We have to win and we must win and now is another game. First you can enjoy but you must recover also because within two days you have to play again."
For all their disappointments, Van Gaal and United could now end the campaign by winning the FA Cup and a place in Europe's top club competition, and their manager believes his players have shown great resilience.
"We have to work very hard to reach this level because we have a very full season," said Van Gaal. "We have played in three competitions.
"It is unbelievable, many more matches than last year and also a new selection with a lot of youngsters so we have to work very hard to reach this level and also we have to recover a lot. So I think we have to play Everton, when we survive Everton I shall give the players a lot of days off."
Palace, of course, are another of the four remaining clubs in the FA Cup, with their semi-final with Watford taking place at Wembley on Sunday.
Manager Alan Pardew conceded that many of his players had their attention turned towards the cup this weekend. "The FA Cup for Man United is going to be a big, big event," he said. "But for us it's going to be a huge event.
"I could see a little bit of blurred focus in my players and that's understandable. A lot of those guys might never get the chance to play in an FA Cup Final again and you could see that a little bit in our play."