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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.
In the opposite corner is the proven winner Mourinho, waiting for his coronation, the Portuguese’s camp already sounded out by United but with no promise of future employment.
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.