When asked what his relationship was with Guus Hiddink, Louis van Gaal replied with one word: “Professional”.
The Iron Tulip and the man they call “Lucky Guus” in the Netherlands are managers who share a glittering CV – both took their country to a World Cup semi-final – but not, it seems any other kind of relationship.
When the Manchester United manager was asked to comment on Wesley Sneijder’s remark that he was “a stern schoolmaster” while Hiddink was “a friendly uncle”, Van Gaal snorted with derision. Asked to explain how Hiddink has transformed Chelsea’s season since taking over from Jose Mourinho, Van Gaal retorted: “Because he is a friendly uncle, I suppose.”
The two men have had bitterer battles than the one they will fight when Manchester United take on Chelsea tomorrow. Hiddink, a disciple of Johan Cruyff, who dismissed Van Gaal’s rigid coaching methods as “a clockwork orange”, was in charge of Real Madrid when Van Gaal ruled the Nou Camp. Barcelona finished as champions, Hiddink was sacked.
The prospect of Van Gaal losing his job at United has receded dramatically with what he called “sparkling football” at Derby in the FA Cup and on Tuesday night against Stoke City at a newly vibrant Old Trafford. Some might say it is an indication of how low expectations have fallen that victories against Championship opposition and a club who last won at Old Trafford in 1976 should count as evidence of a grand revival, but Van Gaal has not yet given up hope of another title.
“We don’t have to exaggerate but I have the feeling that if we beat Chelsea – although that shall be very difficult, because they have not lost under Guus Hiddink – then our league is starting again,” Van Gaal said. “Michael Carrick said to me, and I have the same feeling, that this competition is not yet finished – not for Manchester United or for the other teams. I have said that this season only Crystal Palace and Arsenal were better than us, but we have to show our form in a run of games that we win.”
The United manager also rejected a comment from his captain that his team had started playing with more panache because their manager had given them “more freedom” to play.
“I am not agreeing with that remark of Wayne Rooney,” Van Gaal said. “It is only because they have more confidence and it is especially so with Wayne Rooney because he has scored seven goals in a row.
“He is playing with more freedom because he has more confidence but, if you want to write that it is because he gets another training session in another style because Louis van Gaal gives him more freedom – then no. It is still the same.
“We train all the same in the same way. It is not because of a change of attitude of Mr Louis van Gaal or another way of training. I am sorry to say that. We are always working hard and very professionally under the philosophy of Louis van Gaal.”