Fans won't forgive van Gaal if United lose to Liverpool and City
After West Ham, van Gaal's legacy depends on Liverpool and City games
Louis van Gaal remains the anti-Velcro of Old Trafford. Nothing sticks.
He lives to fight another debacle.
For 83 minutes of Manchester United's FA Cup quarter-final, he was on his way to ignominy.
West Ham were winning yesterday morning (Singapore time) and the Dutchman's managerial career was coming to an end without a cup.
But Anthony Martial intervened and van Gaal's farcical reign at United moved into its second act.
Indeed, all three acts will be played in a single week and will decide whether disillusioned supporters are watching a tragedy, a comedy or the final flourish from a great escapologist.
After West Ham come Liverpool in the Europa League on Friday morning and then perhaps the biggest banana skin of them all - a trip to the minefield of Manchester City on Sunday.
Seven days are left to realistically save United's season and wash away the grubby asterisk that hangs over van Gaal's tenure.
He narrowly dodged a bullet in the FA Cup, but the bigger booby traps are Liverpool and City.
A dive? Come on. If you have a screen, show me, I am going to defend my point at Cambridge, if needed. There is more than a contact. It is definitely not a dive. — West Ham boss Slaven Bilic hitting back at van Gaal’s suggestion that Payet dived
On British radio stations and football forums, cynical Red Devils confessed to a smidgeon of disappointment after Martial's unexpected equaliser.
In a sport defined by absolutes, defeat simplified things.
Losing at home to the Hammers, a club with a poor track record at Old Trafford, would have left van Gaal with no wriggle room. He had to be out at the end of the season.
So a few exasperated souls hoped for an FA Cup exit to accelerate the manager's departure.
But no self-respecting Red Devil tolerates defeat by Liverpool or City, whatever the circumstances.
That's a bridge too far. Seeing the bigger picture is one thing, but sacrificing the season at the feet of sworn enemies is a different kind of betrayal altogether.
If van Gaal thinks the Old Trafford faithful have been patient and understanding, he's in for a startling reality check if performances are poor against Liverpool and City this week.
United's performance was certainly substandard against the resolute Hammers.
In central midfield, Marouane Fellaini's bizarre selection seemed yet again to be the result of a masochistic bet, to see if it was truly possible for a Premier League footballer to look like a roller-skating octopus with elbows.
Not only did van Gaal win the bet, he paired Fellaini with Michael Carrick.
The poignant image of one of the finest passing midfielders of his generation looking on as the game passed him by, as if he were a retired uncle watching kids run around a void deck, was truly a sad one.
For long stretches of the FA Cup quarter-final, United retreated to their default position - slow, plodding midfield possession that goes nowhere and threatens no one.
Their sudden burst of activity following Dimitri Payet's astounding free-kick cannot mask the familiar pattern recognisable to anyone who endured the Europa League trudge against Liverpool or most EPL games this season.
When Payet scored, van Gaal's obituary was being written, just as it was on Boxing Day when Stoke City condemned United to a fourth straight defeat, or when the minnows of FC Midtjylland upset the apple cart last month.
The Dutchman had to go after each embarrassment to spare further humiliation, just as he had to go after the woefully inept display at Anfield last week.
But he survives once more.
It's not a storybook redemption. Leicester City and Tottenham currently monopolise the fairy tales.
It's just another familiar chapter about a lucky survivor, where van Gaal's muddled men are mostly dreadful. And then they are marginally better, allowing executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to avoid the unavoidable for another month.
United's cyclical season isn't so much boom and bust as it is rubbish and slightly less rubbish, but the late reprieve has always come at the most opportune moments for van Gaal, just as it did against West Ham.
What I’ve always done is nothing more than say what I think I’ve seen on a football pitch, whether that’s been good or bad. But when only my negative comments are picked on, it looks worse than it actually is. It’s not the regime I’ve had a go at — I’ve criticised the style of play. — Former Man United midfielder Paul Scholes denying that he has an agenda against Louis van Gaal
Rather than focus on the endemic failings, such as United's inability to muster a single worthwhile shot on goal for the best part of an hour, the emphasis was on the great escape.
Van Gaal had somehow done it again. But this week's feat of escapology comes in three stages - West Ham, Liverpool and City.
Whatever happens in the next two games should not affect the Dutchman's position in the short-term. He'll still be around for the FA Cup replay at Upton Park.
But the results will conclusively determine van Gaal's future at Old Trafford.
Poor FA Cup showings are eventually forgotten. But defeats by Liverpool and Manchester City - in the same week - are never forgiven.