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Manchester United aiming to rejoin Champions League elite

By Paul Hirst

Published 18/08/2015

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United
Wayne Rooney of Manchester United

At his most irascible, Louis van Gaal can actually be very funny. When someone put to him the eminently logical suggestion that the way of bringing goals out of Wayne Rooney would be to play Juan Mata, United's best No 10, at No 10, he offered: "Maybe you can ask the board of Manchester United if you are the trainer-coach or the manager. And then you can discuss it with your staff."

But Van Gaal is generally not funny. These conversations drift into infernal pomposity and in his latest attempt to demonstrate intellectual superiority, he rendered another pre-match discussion fairly meaningless yesterday.

The man who once asked a journalist, "Are you so dumb or am I so clever?", merely reinforced the impression that the United pieces do not yet fit, even though they are one of few sides with maximum Premier League points from their opening two games.

Ahead of the Champions League play-off games against FC Bruges, which Van Gaal agreed were his most important as United manager - "Of course," he replied: his only straight answer - the discussion of Rooney's eight games without a goal yielded only a fleeting expression of confidence in him.

"For one year… you advised me I have to put him in the striker's position, so it is very amazing that after two matches you are doubting your own opinion."

The David De Gea conversation was over before it started because the manager believes the words he chose last Friday were manipulated, to give the impression the Spaniard is refusing to play, rather than psychologically unable.

The discussion of Adnan Januzaj, who was sitting to Van Gaal's left, drifted into an excruciating explanation of why the Belgian had started only eight games last season, having been the outstanding player 12 months earlier.

"The characteristics of a young player is he is not consistent. He has to show that," Van Gaal said, with Januzaj - Friday's match-winner at Villa Park - not seeming entirely sure where to look. Clever? As motivational strategies go, this one suggested Van Gaal was the one who is dumb.

The words have actually signified nothing on these Champions League occasions for some years in the Old Trafford Europa Suite, relieved though United are by the prospect of returning to the continent's top table, having missed out for the first time in 19 years last season.

Sir Alex Ferguson became so bored by the whole business in the end that he would leaf through Uefa's media notes while the charade was playing out.

His in-joke was how few questions the designated top table player would be asked. Rooney's de facto transfer request, on the eve of the group stage game against Bursaspor almost five years ago, provided the only pre-match gathering of much value.

Pomposity is something Ferguson could never be accused of, however. He often refused to answer. He would verbally thump his inquisitor. But there was always conviction when he spoke.

United have good reason to believe they will progress against Michel Preud'homme's team, Europa League quarter-finalists though they were last season.

The second-placed side in last season's Belgian league - who finished the regular campaign top but were pipped by Genk in the 10-match championship play-off - possess in Spaniard Victor Vazquez their nation's outstanding footballer of last season but should not greatly stretch the home side.

The problems Van Gaal was so reluctant to discuss may assume significance in the weeks ahead. There is the absence of a commanding centre-half and the paucity of strikers to share the burden with Rooney.

The manager's explanation yesterday - that Javier Hernandez and James Wilson would do - was especially unconvincing, considering the latter started two Premier League games last season and the former was sent out on loan to Real Madrid.

And, with Angel Di Maria dispensed with, there is the absence of a player to drive hard and fast into the heart of opposition territory, though the arrival of Pedro from Barcelona would resolve that. United are thought to have agreed a fee, though not paying the full £21.3m buyout clause, which is why Barcelona are exercising their right to keep the 28-year-old until the end of the transfer window.

Ashley Young, one of the few players who seems to have improved under Van Gaal, could be restored to the side tonight.

De Gea will almost certainly not and will probably remain in the stands this month while the transfer window is open.

The manager did admit all is not as it might be, saying: "They are not at the highest level... we have a long way to go but we have [had] a better start than last year."

An image of what United aspire to - Nemanja Vidic lifting the European Cup aloft in that rain-drenched Moscow night - was hanging six feet to his left. Time will tell if he can take this club back to that kind of hallowed ground.

Champions League: Old Trafford, Man United v Club Brugge, 7.45pm (BT Sport).

Belfast Telegraph

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