Louis van Gaal’s glory days starting to feel like distant days at Manchester United

Best-case scenario for Van Gaal is that his career comes full circle. The United manager’s first trophy was the Uefa Cup, won with Ajax in 1992. His last could be its successor, the Europa League, in 2016, writes Richard Jolly.

Rather than envisioning trips to the Allianz Arena, the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal now finds himself in one of European football’s outposts, in the middle of Jutland.  Reuters / Lee Smith
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The best-case scenario for Louis van Gaal is that his career comes full circle. The Manchester United manager's first trophy was the Uefa Cup, won with Ajax in 1992. His last could be its successor, the Europa League, in 2016.

That they are separated by almost a quarter of a century indicates the epic scale of the Dutchman’s career. That he is in a competition he thought he would never enter again is a sign of United’s plight.

Now it represents the best chance of salvaging a sorry season. And even then, as Van Gaal admitted, that is a slim one.

If United are to be in next season's Uefa Champions League, they either have to finish in the Premier League's top four or win the continent's second knockout competition.

“The way with the Europa League is easier, I think,” a downbeat Van Gaal said on Saturday. “But also not so easy.”

Indeed not.

As ever, there is an eclectic mix of teams in the last 32. Several – Napoli, Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Fiorentina, Tottenham, Liverpool, Bayer Leverkusen, Shakhtar Donetsk, defending champions Sevilla – look like potential winners.

“You have a fantastic European level in that cup,” said Van Gaal, sounding defeatist.

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His grand strategy has gone awry. The three-year plan he used to outline entailed qualifying for the Champions League in his debut season at Old Trafford, winning the Premier League in the second and then conquering Europe in the third.

The first, and simplest, part was achieved. The others almost certainly will not be.

Rather than envisioning trips to the Allianz Arena, the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu, Van Gaal now finds himself in one of European football’s outposts, in the middle of Jutland.

For the first time, United face FC Midtjylland on Thursday. Herning’s MCH Arena has a capacity of 11,800. It is barely bigger than the Greenhous Meadow, home of League One strugglers Shrewsbury, who host United in Monday’s FA Cup tie.

Read more: 'Welcome to Scamdinavia': Manchester United fans to protest Danish ticket prices at FC Midtjylland

The difference lies in the personnel, not the facilities.

Midtjylland have a solitary league title, to United’s 20, but they are a club on the rise. They were Danish champions last year. Midtjylland finished ahead of Club Brugge, the side United defeated in their Champions League play-off, in the group stages and eliminated Southampton, winners at Old Trafford last month, from the competition even before then.

A tie against comparatively unknown underdogs is rich with the potential for embarrassment.

Partly because Van Gaal has omitted Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini and selected three players, in Regan Poole, James Weir and Joe Riley, who are yet to debut, and partly as United have been prone to losing to supposedly lesser lights since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement.

Midtjylland can take encouragement from the exploits of Middlesbrough and MK Dons, Norwich and Bournemouth, Southampton, Swansea, Stoke and Sunderland, who have all claimed a famous scalp in Van Gaal’s reign.

Midtjylland present a particular test. Owned by Matthew Benham, who also runs Championship club Brentford, they have been influenced by Moneyball and statistics. A tall team are set-piece specialists. United’s squad looks callow in comparison.

Van Gaal’s selection includes two more, in Will Keane and Donald Love, who are yet to start a game for them, adding to the scope for an upset.

A rare senior player could at least see the silver lining in an early elimination from the Champions League.

Juan Mata was part of the Chelsea team who claimed the consolation prize of the 2013 Europa League.

“This trophy would be a double reward,” the Spaniard said. “It could be a positive way to finish the season, as I lived three seasons ago.”

He might sense similarities.

That Chelsea team was also overshadowed by speculation about the future of an unpopular manager, Rafa Benitez, as the spectre of Jose Mourinho started to loom large. Yet that Chelsea side had more resolve, more quality and more of a recent record of winning trophies.

Van Gaal’s glory days are starting to feel like distant days. It might not be 1992 all over again.

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