Failing to reach knockout stage not an option for van Gaal
Failure to qualify for the knockout stage will be unacceptable by United's standards
Louis van Gaal is learning that, sometimes, results are not all that matter.
Manchester United needed a manager of proven calibre last year after the failed David Moyes experiment, and the Dutchman seemed like a prized catch at the time.
He took them back into the Champions League in his maiden season.
His team sit fourth in the English Premier League standings, three points from the summit. But he faces disgruntled fans week in, week out.
He has tested their patience, and reportedly that of the players too, with his cautious approach.
Former United greats are up in arms over the staid fare the team are consistently dishing out.
A defeat by Wolfsburg at the Volkswagen Arena tomorrow morning (Singapore time) will leave van Gaal with nowhere to hide.
If it were results that had bought him time, then what else is left for him to cling on to if they crash out of the Champions League at the group stage?
United stand on precarious ground going into their final group game against the German Bundesliga side.
Anything but a victory on enemy territory will put them in real danger of a premature end to their Champions League campaign.
They may yet go through to the next phase with a loss, but that will depend on PSV Eindhoven suffering the same fate.
With the Dutch Eredivisie side playing at home against bottom team CSKA Moscow, United can't depend on the favour being done.
Such a scenario was unimaginable when the draw was made in August.
By United's standards, this should have been a free pass to the knock-out rounds.
Van Gaal's bewildering reluctance to take risks even when the situation calls for a gamble, as seen in their 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven in their previous game, hasn't helped.
Wolfsburg, who need just a point against United, are formidable opponents. Top of Group B, they have won both their home group matches without conceding a goal.
In the Bundesliga, they are fifth, 15 points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
In the towering Bas Dost, they have a striker capable of testing United's reputable defence.
The two-footed Julian Draxler is a winger with speed to burn and has a powerful shot to behold.
Andre Schuerrle's ability to pop up with vital goals will be another one of the hosts' many weapons.
United's season has been built on a sound foundation at the back.
But the worrying lack of vigour and their predictability in attack, in a game they need to win to be sure of progress, may prove to be their downfall.
Whether or not it was down to van Gaal's tactics or demands, Anthony Martial seemed to have joined the Memphis Depay club for fizzling out after a fine start to life at Old Trafford.
Wayne Rooney looks a beaten man, resigned to a slippery downward slope. It may be a blessing in disguise that he isn't available, after picking up an injury last week.
Maybe this is the match van Gaal finally gets the United machine roaring into life. Perhaps, backed into a corner, the attackers can rediscover their zest and purpose to pummel the opposition into submission, in true Fergie fashion.
But, at the moment, United fans aren't holding their breath for that to happen.
WOLFSBURG v MAN UNITED
(Tomorrow, 3.40am, StarHub TV Ch 212 & Singtel TV Ch 112 — Eurosport)
Other key matches
OLYMPIAKOS v ARSENAL
Arsene Wenger (pictured above) is plotting the Great Escape. Despite three defeats in five group games, Arsenal are still mathematically in with a chance of going into the knockout rounds.
They need to beat Olympiakos by two goals or more, or score at least three goals on the way to a win, to overtake the second-placed Greek club on goal difference.
On paper, they have the quality to pull it off, but a lengthy injury list has denied them of stars such as Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla.
If the Gunners can grab an early goal, it will set them up for one of the unlikeliest turnarounds in Champions League history.
MAN CITY v BORUSSIA MOENCHENGLADBACH
Man City will be kicking themselves if they are pipped to top spot by Juventus.
A loss to the Serie A club a fortnight ago saw their rivals leapfrog them into first place with one group game remaining.
City must beat Borussia Moenchengladbach and then hope Juventus slip up against Sevilla to regain pole position. But they are through to the next round no matter what happens.
However, with the second-placed team playing one of the group winners in the next stage, they will be desperate to avoid the possibility of meeting the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
CHELSEA v PORTO
Leading Group G with 10 points, Chelsea are unlucky not to have already sealed their progress to the next phase.
Another loss to Porto, the team whom Jose Mourinho (pictured above) used to manage, could cost them a place.
The Blues will be wary of the Portuguese outfit.
Their only defeat in this European campaign had came against Porto, who beat them 2-1 at the Estadio do Dragao in September.
A season ago, this would have been a no-contest.
But, with Chelsea in all sorts of problems, from ill discipline to dressing-room unrest, Chelsea fans are in for a nerve-racking 90 minutes.