Norwich City 0 Manchester United 1: Champions League tilt offers Louis van Gaal hope of salvation

Despite a season of turmoil during which he appeared on the brink of the sack, the Manchester United manager finds himself in an FA Cup final and with real hope of a top-four finish

Steve Tongue
Monday 09 May 2016 11:17
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Van Gaal was not wholly surprised by Leicester's rise to the summit
Van Gaal was not wholly surprised by Leicester's rise to the summit

As an Arsenal supporter for the day, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal was as delighted as any Gooner with Alexis Sanchez's equalising goal against Manchester City on Sunday. The draw meant United can finish above their unloved neighbours and earn a Champions League place by winning their last two games against West Ham and Bournemouth.

Meanwhile, Norwich City's Alex Neil, beaten by Juan Mata's goal for United on Saturday, was bitterly disappointed to learn later in the day that companions in distress Sunderland had snatched all three points from the champions, Chelsea. Supporters will turn up at Carrow Road for the final time this season on Wednesday fearing that the game against Watford will be their last in the Premier League for 15 months at least. They will be relegated that night unless they achieve a better result than the Wearsiders do at home to Everton.

Van Gaal will take his side to West Ham the previous night needing a repeat of their FA Cup victory there, which ought to be followed by a home victory over Bournemouth next weekend.

That would give them 69 points, four more than City have going into their final game away at Swansea.

Juan Mata shoots at goal during Manchester United's match with Norwich

From an unhappy Christmas after being beaten at home by Norwich, United therefore go into the last lap knowing that Van Gaal, with an FA Cup final to come as well, could be reprieved after all.

With the West Ham game in mind he got away with resting young striker Marcus Rashford at Carrow Road – just – though it looked a mistake when Anthony Martial pulled out in the warm-up. For an hour Wayne Rooney, the lone attacker with little service, was teetering on the brink of a frustrated explosion but instead he remained calm enough to capitalise on Sebastien Bassong's error and provide the perfect assist for Mata to score.

As centre-half Chris Smalling put it: "Three points are all that matter at this stage." And another three, and another three. Smalling and stand-in centre half Marcos Rojo allowed Norwich's powder-puff attack only one chance in each half, which strikers Cameron Jerome and Dieumerci Mkobani wasted.

That pair have eight goals between them all season and Neil may need to throw both in from the start against a deflated Watford. A lack of goals that always seemed likely to undermine Norwich has done so and they will go into Wednesday not having scored one in the six hours' play since Martin Olsson thumped in a dramatic winner in the final minute at home to Newcastle a month ago.

It is easy to say they should have further strengthened attacking options last summer. Neil believes that earning promotion late, via the Championship play-off final, was a handicap: "There has been a whole host of reasons why that hasn’t been the case. We were last to go up in the play-offs, the recruitment team needed to put together a bit more than what it was, so that wasn’t fully functioned in the way it should’ve been.

"There have been players we’ve tried to attract that ultimately that we didn’t manage to get. If you combine all those reasons we found ourselves in a situation where we didn’t add as many as we’d have liked.”

It is a lesson learnt the hard way. Then £18m worth of signings in January, including Steven Naismith and Matt Jarvis - neither of whom started on Saturday - failed to deliver goals either.

"There were certain games earlier in the season where our play should have seen us take more points," Neil added. And so says every team from Leicester City downwards.

Norwich (4-2-3-1): Ruddy 6; Pinto 6, Martin 6, Bassong 5, Olsson 6; Howson 6, (Dorrans, 78), O'Neil 6; Redmond 7, Hoolahan 6, Brady 6 (Mbokani 6, 63); Jerome 4 (Bamford, 78).
Man Utd (4-1-4-1): De Gea 7; Valencia 7, Smalling 7, Rojo 6, Darmian 6((Borthwick-Jackson 6, 15); Carrick 7(Fosu-Mensah, 87); Mata 8, Herrera 6, Lingard 6 (Schneiderlin, 77), Memphis 4; Rooney 6.

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