OpinionKevin Moran

Van Gaal now faces battle to secure a European spot

Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal facing a tough test for European spot
Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal facing a tough test for European spot

Arsenal beat Man United in tonight’s FA Cup quarter-final – in fact, it won’t even surprise me!

Olivier Giroud is scoring goals for fun again with the Gunners, Alexis Sanchez is playing well and Arsene Wenger’s outfit have found a rhythm and a style at just the right time of the season − domestically, at least. 
They have moved into third place in the Premier League and could make second soon if Man City don’t right their ship.
You have to give the Man United players credit for scrapping and digging out results, such as the late win over Newcastle last Wednesday, where they needed the assistance of two defensive mistakes in the same move to get a goal.
But there is no style, no flair, no panache from a group of world-class players who, during their careers, have hit the heights with other clubs and with their countries.
The Red Devils are not playing well as a team, they have no individuals in top form, and if not for a serious will to win, this season would already be another write-off in the 
post-Ferguson era.
There seems to be no clear plan to what manager Louis van Gaal is trying to do, at least not to me. United have wingers, but don’t use them too often, the long ball up to a striker is still a far too easy recourse when things are going badly and a world-class midfield playmaker is so badly missing.
Last Wednesday at St James’ Park, with United crying out for a goal, a top striker in Radamel Falcao was left sitting on the bench because all three subs had already been introduced.
The transfer market has been a mess too. Toni Kroos moved clubs last season and he was just the midfield maestro the club needed. However, it was Real Madrid who nabbed the German world Cup winner. How United must also rue letting young Paul Pogba leave a couple of years ago as the midfielder takes Serie A by storm with Juventus.
It’s one thing to miss out on a player because the club that owns his contract simply refuses to sell. It is another to not get a player who does move and another level of cock-up again to sell a player who is now the most wanted youngster in Europe!
Now wonder then, that the following stat is true: I couldn’t believe it when I learned that United have played a pass-back to the goalkeeper more often than any club this season.
A red shirt has sent the ball back to David de Gea over 400 times in the league this season; the next closest club is on just over 370. That is not the United way and it smacks of players very short on confidence.
Opposition clubs have noticed it and they are now quick to push up on to United’s defence when they have the ball.
At Christmas I wrote in these pages that United would book a Champions League slot at the end of this season without too much trouble. This morning I must revise that as Liverpool are playing very well and look set to go ahead of United when the teams meet at Anfield in a fortnight.
Throw in the fact that United still have to play Chelsea and Spurs away, and Man City and Arsenal at home, and suddenly the odds are against them being in the top four come May.
Frankly, playing as they have for the last couple of weeks, United will struggle to get much return out of those five matches against the teams around them on the highest steps of the Premier League table.
And missing out on the Champions League would be a double blow. It will cost the club a lot of revenue, at a time when they have to buy more quality players, and it will be hard for United to get those top-notch additions without the promise of Champions League action.
These are tough times for United, who are learning just how hard it is to replace a legend in Alex Ferguson. 
No matter what qualities David Moyes or Van Gaal possess as bosses, and they are many, it was always going to be a huge ask of them to come in and make things carry on seamlessly.
Yes, for Van Gaal these new few weeks are going to be huge in Manchester United’s season, as he attempts to do the minimum asked of him and get the Red Devils into top European action next season.