One down, two to blow. The nature of Manchester United's perfectly crushing and bloody depressingly limp loss to bitter North West rivals Liverpool in the Europa League on Thursday night suggests they can realistically lift only one trophy this season. And even their last flickering hope of a prize might be ripped from their grasp by West Ham United on Sunday. Within the space of four days, United's pursuit of two competitions could be extinguished by the overwhelming poverty of a squad King Louis spent £300m to refurbish.
Let's hope this whole Eva Carneiro business isn't affecting Jose Mourinho's sleep. Mourinho must have been privately purring at studying Manchester Dis-United. While King Louis is back to square one among the club's fans, the 'Special One' is a step nearer to becoming the 'Salford One'.
Unless there is a miracle on Sir Alex Ferguson Way in the return leg against Jurgen Klopp's all-action side a week on, United's season boils down to bodyswerving another hammering. After the Liverpool humping, it would be too much for the natives to accept if they are rumbled by Slaven Bilic's lot, a side on the up and up, who wash up at Old Trafford above their hosts in the Premier League standings.
Not only is the FA Cup worth something to United, to Van Gaal it suddenly means everything.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal before the match
Image credit: Reuters
Sometimes it feels like poor old frazzled Louis can’t do right for doing wrong.
When the Dutchman pointed out the other day that United were treating the Europa League with total respect and effort because it was their current level, he might as well have been talking Double Dutch.
What ensued was an open goal for Van Gaal to attract more slightly deranged derision as a figure who apparently fails to appreciate the significance, tradition or standing of United as English football’s most successful club with only a paltry 20 Premier Leagues to their name.
Indeed, Van Gaal would have prompted less consternation among some of his detractors if he had swapped promo jackets with Klopp at half-time at Anfield. Apart from Keano, at least some punters would have seen the funny side of such high jinks.
Attempting to explain that a dysfunctional United are back among the also-rans in English football to some supporters sounds about as comical as a Carlos Tevez placard. Yet Van Gaal is correct in what he says. His problem is that a limited squad nobly took it upon themselves to illustrate his theory on the fields of Anfield Road.
The level of output at Anfield is where United find themselves. Mark ‘Bozza’ Bosnich showed a greater level of awareness than some red diehards when he ordered a Chicken chow mein from a local Chinese takeaway while on Fergie’s Slimfast plan back in the day. Unlike Bozza, United are fighting out of the right weight category hurtling towards the conclusion of a gloomy sort of season that offers up a glimpse of the gallows in the second week in March.
If some United fans are snivelling about being asked to be happy about competing for the Europa League, a competition whose winners earn a Champions League spot and one that is probably already lost at the bottom of the Irwell, goodness knows where the FA Cup stands in their list of priorities. Radamel Falcao suffered less ridicule for being tinpot, but the FA Cup offers the club a path back into the light.
Peter Schmeichel and Alex Ferguson celebrate Manchester United's 1999 FA Cup win (Reuters)
Image credit: Reuters
United haven't lifted a trophy since David Moyes gloriously carried off the Community Shield three years ago. For both sides, opportunity knocks. United are marginal favourites on Sunday, but only because of home advantage.
It is a slightly odious hand me down from the Fergie era that some fans believe the club should only concern themselves with the Champions League and Premier League. As Van Gaal says, such dominance over a 20-year period is not normal, and unsustainable in such monied moments. But it cannot curb the sense of entitlement, the remnants of Ferguson's former glories. It makes nights like Thursday's defeat to Liverpool harder to swallow.
It was another time. You live in the past," said Van Gaal. "You live in the past and you have to live in the present.
Fergie had a vexed relationship with the FA Cup. He vandalised the good name of the competition when he fielded a weakened side in the semi-finals against Everton in 2009 ahead of a Champions League final with Barcelona. That was seven years ago, but the FA Cup is suddenly back on the agenda for a famished United.
All good things come to an end yet some believe that the natural order of football in England has merely been momentarily disturbed, that the football plates will shift back into place and United’s second coming is only a matter of time.
Louis van Gaal waves at fans.
Image credit: Eurosport
They will come again, but never to such an level that Fergie had them at. Not in this day and age when all 20 Premier League concerns will be sprouting more money next season than plastic seats. Not when clubs such as the Hammers are wallowing in greater largesse than your average P Diddy party. LVG is overseeing a HGV, but juggernauts come in all sorts of guises these days.
West Ham boast players Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini who would walk into Van Gaal’s side.
Like Van Gaal, it is time for United fans to get real. Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and West Ham are all viewing the FA Cup with a real relish because it can see a club salvage something tangible and meaningful moving forward. A day out for the fans to Wembley, a tickertape of memories to dampen fresh memories of dejection stirred up at Anfield.
The blue-chip clubs also tend to get serious about the world’s oldest cup competition at this stage of the season. Only Portsmouth and Wigan from a provincial list have won the trophy over the past 21 years outside of United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
West Ham lost the final to Liverpool a decade ago, but last won it in 1980 when Trevor Brooking’s header sunk Arsenal at the old Wembley. They would be forever blowing bubbles if they win the trophy in their final season at the Boleyn Ground before moving to the Olympic Stadium.
Anybody under the age of 30 won’t remember the significance of the FA Cup in helping Fergie to prosper. Without Lee Martin scoring the winning goal in the replay against Crystal Palace the old Wembley in 1990, Fergie would not have been allowed to continue at United. Not when he had four years without collecting a trophy.
West Ham United's Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard Snr show the FA Cup to the fans after their 1-0 victory.
Image credit: Eurosport
Van Gaal won’t go on a roll of 33 trophies and two European Cups that wound up with Fergie building an empire of new romantics over 27 years at United that suddenly allows chief executive Ed ‘The Equaliser’ Woodward to boast about his club's 70m followers worldwide on social media. A solitary trophy would allow him a modicum of respect before his abdication.
With United three points behind City in sixth, and two adrift of West Ham in fifth, it is doubtful whether Van Gaal can qualify for the Champions League via the Premier League but as LVG also exclaims, there is no trophy to go with it. Surely silverware such as the FA Cup should continue to be valued as the football fan’s only true vision of gold.
Winning the FA Cup allowed us breathing space and deepened my sense that this was a wonderful club with which to win trophies, said Ferguson in his 2013 autobiography. "To win the FA Cup at Wembley made the good times roll.
Winning it might not be enough to ringfence his position, but it would be a nice way for people to remember Van Gaal by. That he wasn't Louis the loser during a few bewildering years failing to work out the ingredients of Fergie's elixir after millions and millions spent on research.
If United fall on Sunday, Van Gaal probably goes down with the ship. Perhaps before May. While Mourinho is hardly the obvious answer to sort out United's malaise, it is looking increasingly likely that Louis isn't.
He may not yet have lost the dressing room, but it feels like he has lost a club.