Louis van Gaal allowed himself a rare smile as he conducted his post-match media briefing by the side of the pitch at Shrewsbury Town’s Greenhous Meadow.
The haunted look that followed the Premier League defeat at Sunderland and the humiliating Europa League loss at Danish minnows FC Midtjylland was temporarily replaced by the satisfaction of an easy 3-0 win at the League One strugglers in the FA Cup fifth round.
The respite only lasts until Thursday when they must beat Midtjylland at Old Trafford to keep those European aspirations afloat – but is it already too late for Van Gaal to salvage his Manchester United career?
Why Van Gaal can’t win – even when he does
Manchester United’s win at Liverpool on 17 January appeared to release the pressure valve on the 64-year-old Dutchman – only for it to be turned up several notches by the home defeat by Southampton a week later.
This was the match that sealed the statistic that may yet be Van Gaal’s Old Trafford epitaph: 11 successive home games without a first-half goal.
Since then there has been a rising tide of speculation – none of it refuted by anyone at the club, about Van Gaal’s position as manager – particularly regarding conversations with the representatives of former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.
Now even a Van Gaal win is not regarded as a win. It is regarded as a stay of execution, a delay of the inevitable. They are not victories – they are small acts of crisis aversion.
Van Gaal rightly pointed out that the trip to Shrewsbury Town could have been difficult. The FA Cup’s history is littered with these sorts of shocks – but United went about their business professionally, efficiently and with commitment.
The environment surrounding Van Gaal and Old Trafford, the sense of inevitability that he will be gone at the season’s end – perhaps before if they suffer any more serious losses – means that any sort of win is met with the reaction: “Until the next time.”
It was exactly the same at Shrewsbury. Van Gaal is the man who cannot win…even when he wins.
How many more stays of execution can he have?
The scenery now shifts to Old Trafford on Thursday.
Van Gaal emerged unscathed from this FA Cup tie and was in the sort of positive mood that has deserted him recently.
He insisted they have a good chance of beating Midtjylland to progress in the Europa League, with the prize for its winner a place in next season’s Champions League, have a home FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham and – for all the trauma – remain in fifth place in the Premier League, just six points behind fourth-placed Manchester City.
This was very much a “glass half full” Van Gaal – but it will drain at an alarming rate should they not overcome the Danes.
It will be crisis time again before Sunday’s Old Trafford meeting with Arsenal in the league. Defeat there, should that come on the back of a Europa League loss, might make the pressure unbearable and force a reluctant hierarchy, or more specifically executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, to act.
The other side of the coin is that if United win on Thursday and beat Arsenal, with that last-eight tie against the Hammers in their locker, things might just look a little rosier – at least in the short-term.
Barring something remarkable, the general acceptance is that Van Gaal will be gone at the end of the season. He is now almost reduced to managing on a match-to-match basis.
A win may keep the wolf from the door but a loss could unleash the whole pack. It is an unhealthy life of management uncertainty.
What are the board’s options? Does Giggs hold the key?
It is clear the preferred option of Woodward is that Van Gaal can muddle through until the end of the season when the big decision can be taken with some time, not a rush job brought on before the end of this campaign by a rash of poor results.
It seems United will only look in two directions: Ryan Giggs or Mourinho.
Some reports suggest the traditionalists inside Old Trafford, such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson, are supporters of the continuity candidate in Welshman Giggs, who has always been seen as a future United manager.
Giggs certainly emerges as a key figure from the intrigue.
As the man who has sat as the silent sidekick through the misery of the Van Gaal and David Moyes years, could he seriously do the same again under Mourinho, who famously always brings his own entourage with him?
Unlikely – which would mean him moving away from his beloved Old Trafford after making a club record 963 appearances, winning 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two Champions Leagues.
And will this factor be a consideration? Would Giggs really want to succeed Van Gaal right now with the club’s playing resources so average and such a rebuilding job to be done? He is unlikely to turn it down but it is quite a task for a rookie with no full-time management experience.
And could it be that Woodward simply does not know what to do? Is the perceived loyalty to Van Gaal merely masking indecision with various factions inside Old Trafford split between Giggs and Mourinho?
At least the win over Shrewsbury buys Woodward time to deliberate further on the questions that will shape Manchester United’s future- even if only for a few days.
Manchester United made easy work of League One Shrewsbury Town to give temporary relief to embattled manager Louis van Gaal and secure an FA Cup quarter-final with West Ham at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal, with speculation still rife that he is to be replaced by ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, knew defeat by a Shrewsbury side lying 21st in their division was unthinkable – and possibly terminal for his employment prospects.
United, instead, gave their manager a comfortable night as they strolled into the last eight, with Chris Smalling’s scuffed shot and Juan Mata’s smart free-kick giving them a half-time advantage they never threatened to surrender.
Shrewsbury barely gave United an anxious moment – although Abu Ogogo had an effort scrambled off the line by United substitute Joe Riley as well as heading wide late on – and victory was wrapped up when Jesse Lingard turned in Ander Herrera’s shot just after the hour.
United’s injury problems worsened when substitute Will Keane came off leaving the visitors to play the last 14 minutes with 10 men.
United may have struggled to make their supremacy count, although keeper Jayson Leutwiler saved well from Memphis Depay and Ogogo scrambled Antony Martial’s effort off the line, but once they were ahead through Smalling after 37 minutes this was all over as a contest.
They were helped by a Shrewsbury side who seemed overawed by the occasion.
Van Gaal will be both relieved and delighted to leave Shropshire unscathed – another crisis averted, for now at least.
Can FA Cup revive United’s season?
United have lifted the FA Cup 11 times, the last of which was when they won 3-0 against Millwall in Cardiff in 2004 – but can they relieve the gloom of this season by claiming the trophy for the first time in 12 years?
They have a tough quarter-final task against West Ham United, with Slaven Bilic’s side looking impressive after putting out Liverpool after a replay and thrashing Blackburn Rovers 5-1 at Ewood Park in the fifth round.
United are at home, however, and just one match from a Wembley semi-final.
In the short-term at least, this win stops the rot after those damaging losses away to Sunderland and FC Midtjylland in the Europa League horror show in Denmark.
Van Gaal’s attention can now turn to overturning the Danish side’s 2-1 advantage, as this was a rare night of relaxation for the under-pressure Dutchman.
Man of the match – Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Juan Mata’s goal was his first direct free-kick for Manchester United since December 2014. He also made eight key passes during the game – more than any other player.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on BBC Sport: “I was very pleased. We have played 70 minutes fantastic, in a professional way, creating chances and scoring goals. After 70 we were with 10 and it was more difficult.
“It [injuries] was unbelievably unlucky again. The players were very committed to perform and you see what is the consequence.
“Everyone shall say United have to win against Shrewsbury. For the players it is fantastic because we are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
“We are in all the competitions, just six points behind Manchester City, we have a lot of chances, a lot of titles to fight for. It isn’t easy because we have to win a lot of games but it is still possible.”
Shrewsbury boss Micky Mellon, talking to BT Sport: “We have to say about the quality of Manchester United, it was absolutely fantastic.
“I couldn’t have asked more of the players – we just came up against a team of utmost quality.
“I haven’t seen the free-kick back. We have to come away from this, say it has been a fantastic cup run. We gave it everything but, playing against quality like that, it wasn’t going to be enough.”
The stats you need to know
Smalling scored his first ever FA Cup goal in what is his 20th appearance in the competition.
This was Smalling’s 39th club appearance of the season (all competitions) – more than any other Premier League player.
Mata has had a hand in 16 goals (eight goals, nine assists) in 17 FA Cup appearances.
Mata scored his first direct free-kick for Manchester United since 2 December 2014.
United have lost just one of their last 46 FA Cup games against lower-league opposition, with that solitary defeat coming at home to Leeds in January 2010 (W38 D7 L1).
United have now won the last seven FA Cup fifth round ties that they have been involved in.
This was the 50th consecutive FA Cup match involving United to be broadcast live on English television. The last not to be was on 8 January 2005 versus Exeter City.
United’s hopes of a Champions League place via the Europa League hang in the balance as they host FC Midtjylland on Thursday, with the Danish side carrying a 2-1 lead. The Shrews are away at bottom side Colchester next Saturday.
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