Van Gaal dares to dream after United pass City ‘survival’ test
Rashford earns the derby bragging rights and fans hopes of Champions League
THE Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal believes Champions League football is within reach after coming through a “test of survival” in the derby visit to City.
Thursday’s Europa League exit to Liverpool means only a top-four finish will do if the red half of the city are to return to European football’s top table. The Dutchman admitted in the build-up to Sunday’s match that defeat would all but extinguish their hopes, but his side produced a manful display to close the gap on misfiring City.
Marcus Rashford’s first-half strike at the Etihad Stadium saw his first Manchester derby end in a 1-0 win. “I have said in advance that we must win this game and we have done it, so I am very happy because otherwise the gap was too big if they won,” van Gaal said.
“Or a draw would have meant it was still four points, with eight matches to go, so then it would also have been very difficult. Now it is in our own hands, I think. 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.”
Van Gaal says that the belief was palpable in the dressing room after a match which left him proud given Thursday’s Europa League exertions. “I think that we have played a fantastic first half,” the Dutchman insisted.
“We also started the second half very well and had the first chances – after that it was a test of survival because we were very tired. We have to recover within two days – that is nearly not possible and especially not when you play a game against Liverpool like we have done.
“We have and have given everything to beat Liverpool and then you have to play City. You have seen, for example, their result at Southampton – half-time 0-2, full time 3-2. I have not seen the match but I can only conclude that it is because of the tiredness. That is what we have done to them.
“My players have fought to the end with cramp – Marcus Rashford could still run with cramp. I have never seen that!”
Van Gaal’s comments came in response to a question about United targeting City’s injury-hit defence. “Rashford is very quick and Martin Demichelis looked like the years are catching up with him,” he added.
“He was a very good defender, he was my centre-back at Bayern Munich but that is the life of football.”
Demichelis had a torrid afternoon at the Etihad Stadium, not only being embarrassed by Rashford but providing the woeful backpass that led Joe Hart to sustain a calf injury.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini denied that Rashford was too good for Demichelis but admitted: “Martin was nervous, he was not having a good day.”
Pellegrini, who walked out of his TV interview, struck an understandably frustrated figure in the post-match press conference, having seen City’s title hopes extinguished as United moved to within a point of them in fourth.
The Champions League quarterfinals may await the Capital One Cup winners, but they have now only won one of six league matches, raising questions of whether Pep Guardiola’s impending arrival has negatively impacted the squad.
“I don’t think that I lose any control,” Pellegrini said. “If you see the attitude of the team today, it reflects that we are involved in what we want to do. The players are focused.”
HELPING HAND: Marcus Rashford’s first-half strike kept Louis van Gaal’s Champions League hopes alive