Thursday Night Football: Not part of the Manchester United plan
Where do Manchester United go from here?
In some ways, exiting the FA Cup at the quarter-final stage may be no bad thing. With all possible distractions removed, focus has been narrowed on the pursuit of a top-four finish in the Premier League.
A return to Champions League competition was always the top priority for those at Old Trafford and a target Louis van Gaal was expected to meet upon his appointment last summer.
United – 20-time champions of England – had not spent big on and off the field to endure another season of transition.
Yes, fresh faces on the playing and coaching staff were always going to need time in which to find their feet, but at the highest level time is a commodity in short supply. Ed Woodward knows that, Van Gaal knows that, even Radamel Falcao knows that.
What, then, will happen if United fail to end the campaign with a return ticket booked to European football’s top table?
They were able to land Van Gaal last summer on reputation alone, while the likes of Falcao and Angel di Maria joining the ranks thanks to the hefty pay packets on offer and the promise that better times lay ahead following a forgettable 12 months in United’s illustrious history.
The Red Devils have, however, tottered forward like a punch-drunk challenger rather than marching onwards like the heavyweight champions they have been and harbour ambitions of being again.
The football on offer under Van Gaal has been ponderous, direct and far removed from the free-flowing brand United supporters had grown accustomed to under the guidance of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
The fear-factor which once surrounded the club has been slowly eroded, with mid-table outfits now strolling into Old Trafford and believing that it will be their dreams realized at Manchester’s famous theater rather than those of the hosts – an unimaginable occurrence under Fergie.
Efforts to start turning this tide have to start now. Right now.
Monday night’s defeat to Arsenal in their own backyard has guaranteed that the campaign will end with no additions to the trophy cabinet, with the FA Cup eluding United for an 11th year.
A top-four spot would help to paper over a few cracks and set Van Gaal up for another summer of rebuilding, but even that is far from guaranteed.
Football betting markets still have United rivalling arch-rivals Liverpool in that particular race, despite the Reds of Merseyside staging a spectacular charge through 2015 to position themselves back on the coattails of the frontrunners.
It is difficult to say with any certainty, though, whether the Red Devils will benefit from having seen all of their eggs placed in one basket. They have shown themselves to be capable of grinding out results, but can they do that when under the most intense of pressure and with North West neighbours breathing heavily down their neck?
If they were to stumble at this late stage, slip to fifth and see Champions League football written off in successive seasons, it will be an uncomfortable pre-season for all concerned on the red half of Manchester.
The Europa League would be scant consolation – perhaps more of a hindrance in many ways – with Thursday night football definitely not part of the plan when you consider that United need to hold a trump card in any negotiations with top transfer targets. They have to start offering a loyal fan base something positive to cling to as Van Gaal struggles to shift the storm clouds that continue to roll in all too frequently for the Dutchman’s liking.
Sources: bbc.com / dailymail.co.uk