After bowing out of the FA Cup at home to Arsenal, Manchester United are left with only fourth place in the Premier League and subsequent Champions League qualification to play for this season. And while a return to European football might constitute a decent first campaign for Louis van Gaal, it lacks the tangible reward of silverware – the importance of which Arsene Wenger realised last year.
The Gunners’ FA Cup success, beating Hull City to land their first trophy in nine years, greatly eased the pressure on Wenger and gave the long-serving manager something to point to when critics questioned his position. It was no longer enough for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League – the supporters wanted more, and they got it. Wenger may have in the past argued that fourth place was a trophy in and of itself but the Arsenal fans never appeared to agree.
Their United counterparts might be more open to accepting that reasoning this year, such is the importance of Champions League football at Old Trafford, but it’s unlikely to ease the sting of losing at home to a long-term rival, and the decisive goal being scored by one of their own. Danny Welbeck was cast aside by van Gaal at the start of the season and has responded with nine goals in all competitions, significantly more than big-money loan arrival Radamel Falcao, who at least has 150
Falcao never even made it on to the pitch on Monday night, van Gaal introducing Phil Jones and Michael Carrick at half-time and later Adnan Januzaj as he looked for a spark to turn the tie around. It never arrived. The only flash point was Angel Di Maria’s bizarre red card, a stain on what had been if not a consistent display from the Argentine than at least a telling one, with a delicious cross for Wayne Rooney’s first-half header.
It wasn’t enough to make Di Maria United’s standout player, an honour that again belonged to goalkeeper David De Gea. The Spain international kept United from falling further behind with a couple of astonishing saves, and not for the first time this season. It may be to United’s credit that they have a goalkeeper capable of such excellence but the more stark fact is that United now longer have match-winners in attack, barring the occasional virtuoso performance from Rooney. They only have a match-saver in goal.
De Gea’s presence at least gives van Gaal something to build on, assuming the reported Real Madrid target remains at United when the summer transfer window closes. Him aside, though, and the picture is as confused now as it was at the start of the season. Uncertain in defence, uninspired in midfield and with only Rooney convincing in attack, van Gaal’s United remains an unreliable proposition. Success in the FA Cup might not have changed that but, then again, neither will a fourth-place finish. But it would have been a counter-point to the critics, as Wenger discovered last May.