Van Gaal admits top four now 'very difficult' after Sunderland defeat
Louis van Gaal says winning the Europa League is the best hope of Champions League qualification for Manchester United after they lost 2-1 to Sunderland this afternoon.
The under pressure boss admitted that achieving a top four finish would now be 'very difficult' and that the best route back to European football's top competition for the Red Devils would be via victory in the Europa League.
However, the Dutchman also admitted how difficult it will be to win the Europa League.
Lamine Kone's powerful header helped Sunderland to a vital victory over Manchester United to rekindle their survival hopes and pile the pressure on Van Gaal.
The January signing from French side Lorient powered Wahbi Khazri's 82nd-minute corner towards David de Gea. The ball then ricocheted between the goalkeeper and Anthony Martial on the line before ending up in the back of the net. It was officially credited as a De Gea own goal.
Earlier Martial had cancelled out Khazri's third-minute opener.
It was the Black Cats' first league victory over United on Wearside since March 1997 and left a crowd of 41,687 with fresh belief that Sam Allardyce can lead the club to safety, while the visitors' hopes of a top-four finish suffered a major blow.
At the end of a difficult week for both managers for vastly different reasons, it was Allardyce's face which broke into a smile with just three minutes gone after full-back Matteo Darmian had upended opposite number Patrick van Aanholt.
Khazri curled the resulting free-kick into the penalty area and although Jermain Defoe failed to make contact, the ball skipped off the surface and evaded David de Gea's outstretched arm before nestling inside the far post.
Sunderland maintained the pace as Khazri led Darmian a merry dance in the early stages, and it took a vital challenge by Chris Smalling to prevent Defoe from extending his side's lead after Lee Cattermole had found him inside the box with an 11th-minute pass.
United belatedly responded, but without creating meaningful chances, and they survived penalty appeals when Khazri's 26th-minute drive struck Morgan Schneiderlin's arm, and the Tunisia international fired high and wide after being played in by Defoe two minutes later.
The visitors mustered their first attempt on goal 14 minutes before the break when Juan Mata steered a first-time effort from Wayne Rooney's pass straight into keeper Vito Mannone's midriff, but having lost Darmian to injury, they got themselves back on level terms with six minutes of the half remaining.
Mannone got down well to his right to push away Mata's effort, but the ball fell nicely for Martial, who clipped it expertly from a tight angle over the Italian and into the net.
Defoe was almost presented with an opportunity to restore the Black Cat's lead when Cattermole's 47th-minute shot was only half-blocked and almost dropped into his path, and they were appealing for a penalty - again in vain - when John O'Shea's 50th-minute header from Khazri's corner appeared to striker Rooney's raised hand.
Sunderland were dominating once again and had it not been for Daley Blind's brilliant block, Defoe would have put them ahead from Van Aanholt's cross four minutes later.
De Gea kept United level with 61 minutes gone when he blocked Dame N'Doye's shot with his right boot after Cattermole had picked out the striker's run, and Khazri forced the Spaniard to save from a swerving free-kick after he had been tripped by substitute Donald Love.
De Gea had to tip Kone's stinging drive over five minutes later as an end-to-end encounter entered its final stages, but there was nothing he could do to stop the same man eight minutes from time when he met Khazri's corner with a powerful downward header that ended up in the back of the net.