Belfast Telegraph

Van Gaal's bedtime advice for Manchester United players - beat Stoke in your sleep,

By Paul Hirst

Louis van Gaal has been telling Manchester United's players to think of beating Stoke City while they are in bed.

United will make it eight wins from 10 matches if they can get the better of the Potters at the Britannia Stadium this afternoon.

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The idea of travelling to Staffordshire for a lunch-time kick-off on New Year's Day may not appeal to many people - particularly those who enjoyed a heavy night seeing in the new year.

But Van Gaal is relishing the opportunity of gaining ground on Manchester City and Chelsea, who play Sunderland and Tottenham respectively later today.

Van Gaal took little notice of Chelsea and City's slip-ups last weekend - United themselves failed to take advantage as they drew at Spurs - and the Dutchman insists only his players will decide whether they become genuine title contenders in the coming weeks.

"You have to always do it by yourself and not depend on results of the opponent," the United manager said.

"You have to be busy with yourself, with your preparation, and the imagination of the game.

"All the players have to do that - dream of the game already, you have to play the game already in your bed."

Although United sit in third position in the table after a nine-match unbeaten run, Van Gaal is yet to see a completely satisfactory performance from his team.

The 3-1 win Boxing Day win over Newcastle had the hallmarks of a victory from the Sir Alex Ferguson era, but Van Gaal was still not totally happy with proceedings.

The United boss is so demanding that he says he has enjoyed just a single "perfect" performance from one of his teams during his 27-year career.

And that came 20 years ago when he coached an Ajax side containing the likes of Edwin van der Saar, Edgar Davids and a 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert to a 2-0 Champions League win at Real Madrid.

"That was a perfect game - the only one in my eyes," Van Gaal said.

"I have not achieved that with Manchester United."

The fact that United dropped points at Spurs thanks to home goalkeeper Hugo Lloris' brilliance, and at Villa Park, where the hosts played the final 25 minutes with 10 men, still rankles with Van Gaal.

"In the last three games - Aston Villa, Newcastle, Tottenham - we should have had nine points," the former Barcelona manager said.

"Then, we would (have) four more points and we would be only six points (behind Chelsea)."

Reflecting on his first five months in England, Van Gaal said he had been taken aback by the support he had received from United fans despite a stuttering start to his Old Trafford tenure.

"I have never had the experience that when you lose or draw at home that the fans still applaud you, showing their belief in you. Never," Van Gaal said.

"In Barcelona, (they wave) white handkerchiefs. In Bayern, they whistle. In Amsterdam, Ajax, they are shouting for someone else.

"Here, they stand up, and applaud. Unbelievable.

"That's why I'm thanking the fans because they were very important in my first six months."

Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera could return from illness and injury respectively for the Stoke match and Angel di Maria may feature after Van Gaal played down the seriousness of a pelvic injury sustained by the Argentinian.

"He's coming back. It's not serious," Van Gaal said.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard was subjected to a rash challenge by Phil Bardsley when the Blues went to Stoke last week, but Van Gaal is sure the officials will not let this afternoon's encounter turn ugly.

The United manager added: "I think the referee is the most important man on the pitch always in relation to tackles.

"He has to allow it or not. We have Michael Oliver and I think he is a very good referee."

Stoke's mercurial striker Bojan Krkic is a major doubt for the Potters.

Bojan came off with a hamstring injury in the second half of Stoke's 1-0 victory at Everton on Boxing Day and the 24-year-old underwent a scan on Tuesday.

Phil Bardsley missed last weekend's 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion with an ankle problem and is likely to be absent again while Stephen Ireland (knee), Victor Moses (thigh) and Pete Odemwingie (knee) are all out.

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