Belfast Telegraph

Louis Van Gaal knows his Manchester United side still has hurdles to overcome

By Tim Rich

Manchester United trained in thick fog which would serve as an apt metaphor for where the club stands a year and a half into Louis van Gaal's tenure.

They are fourth in the league, they will probably qualify from their Champions League group, but nobody can't quite see their road ahead.

Saturday's stalemate at Crystal Palace, a match not even Van Gaal thought United deserved to win, was their third successive goalless draw.

Only twice before have they achieved this kind of nothingness - in January 2005, when Sir Alex Ferguson's side seemed marooned by Chelsea and Arsenal and in September 1921 at the start of a season that saw them relegated in last place.

"It has not always been the big Theatre of Dreams, I am sorry to say," said Van Gaal.

"We are trying to make history, but it takes time. I have said that before but I cannot repeat that, otherwise you shall write: 'Van Gaal asks for time again'. Until now, there has always been progress.

"I remind you that you once said defending was our problem and now we are the best defenders in the Premier League.

"Now you say we cannot attack. No, it is not true. It is only a moment in the process.

"This season we have stood first in the Premier League and now we are having a bad period because football is about scoring goals not creating chances.

"We have to improve that and I hope we shall score against CSKA Moscow, but I know it shall be very difficult because they are very organised and they shall play even more defensively than Crystal Palace."

They may not.

CSKA's last three visits to Manchester have seen them score seven times against United and City, although it says something for the Russian side's defensive frailties that only one of those matches was won.

Nevertheless, United should expect to score at Old Trafford if they want to get something from the game.

Usually that would be routine, but the feeling is that Van Gaal's Manchester United are over-coached and over-anxious.

Only one team in the Premier League has had more possession and only one has had fewer shots.

In 1981, Manchester United fired their manager, Dave Sexton, because his intricate football had become so unfathomably dull.

Gordon McQueen, then United's dominant centre-half, told Sexton in exasperation: "Why doesn't somebody cross the ball, I can get my big, stupid head on it, put it in the back of the net and we can all go home."

Of all the men in Manchester United's current squad, only Wayne Rooney could say that to Van Gaal and the England captain's form has been so fitful that perhaps only his reputation is keeping him in the team.

From the outside it does not seem an especially happy place. Memphis Depay has found himself left out of the Netherlands squad for two upcoming friendlies because, in the words of their manager, Danny Blind, "he is not a team player".

He is unlikely to feature tonight.

Rooney is the ultimate team man, but he is not currently a better centre-forward than Anthony Martial, who has begun the last four matches on the left to accommodate him.

One of his predecessors as England captain, Alan Shearer, suggested Rooney needed to be rested, a principle Van Gaal was not opposed to. He pointed out that at Ajax he would rest Jari Litmanen in November and December, months he was used to taking off as a Finnish footballer. He had given United's young central defender, Paddy McNair, a week off in Northern Ireland. He was not, however, about to rest or drop Rooney.

"I have confidence in this player because he gives me more than just goals," said Van Gaal.

"He is our captain and an example for the whole team. He has more credits (in the bank) than any other player and I have explained that to the whole team one-and-a-half years ago. I still have confidence in Wayne Rooney."

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