A fourth straight defeat could cost United fourth place
Van Gaal must get his tinkering right to avoid getting sucked into top-four battle with Pool
CRYSTAL PALACE v MAN UNITED
(Tomorrow, 12.30am, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Numbers can be funny.
Three consecutive defeats feel like a stubborn case of the hiccups. Four losses start to look like a virus.
They infect the camp. Players are left feeling disoriented and slightly nauseous. Confidence evaporates. Tension spreads. Seasons disintegrate.
Manchester United are 90 minutes away from either ending a stubborn wobble or beginning a late collapse.
Lose at Crystal Palace tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and Liverpool loom large over the shoulder. Suddenly, the four-point gap is bridgeable.
Suddenly, the Reds have everything to play for at Stamford Bridge tomorrow in a contest where Chelsea have nothing to play for beyond titillating a few statisticians.
If the Red Devils go down at Palace, they may not go forth and make the Champions League.
Winning the battle against Liverpool for Memphis Depay thrilled the Old Trafford faithful. Losing the war and missing out on fourth place will prove far less palatable.
Depay without Champions League football is a pyrrhic victory.
The Dutchman's signing is cause for celebration among United supporters, but it also serves as a plaster, covering a wound that still festers.
Tactical schizophrenia afflicted the last three games, leading to some erratic performances on both the pitch and in the dugout.
There was no shame in losing to Chelsea, but the reverses against Everton and West Brom were particularly poor.
Louis van Gaal's eagerness to accommodate Robin van Persie disrupted the successful approach that United had stumbled upon by accident.
Against West Brom, Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini essentially shared No. 10 responsibilities, neutralising both of them. Van Persie was neglected and isolated, leaving him to ponder his summer holidays.
Of course, Michael Carrick's absence cannot be underestimated.
He directed United's renaissance until his injury forced van Gaal to throw the formation into a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly.
What came out left the Dutchman looking like a pudding.
The run of three defeats was distinctly un-Manchester United-like. The Red Devils rarely fall at the final furlong. They even improved at this stage last season under interim boss Ryan Giggs.
But van Gaal's aggressive tinkering leaves the wheels in danger of falling off at the worst time.
BRUISED BY BAGGIES
United's two flat lines against both Everton and the Baggies left their holding midfielders unable to drop anchor. Daley Blind and Ander Herrera were cut adrift.
The Red Devils ended up with more holes than the British Labour Party. Van Gaal is no Ed Miliband, but his campaign has been no less inconsistent.
Fellaini found form on the left, in a withdrawn forward's role. So van Gaal moved him into the middle.
Rooney revelled in his restored No. 9 role, leading the line. So van Gaal tugged him by the collar and pulled him back into midfield.
The move left the skipper with all the influence and movement of the rear end of a pantomime cow.
What's more worrying than Carrick's absence for the final weeks of the season is his manager's decision to rip up both the teamsheet and the template.
Alarm bells aren't ringing. But they'll be chiming at Palace if the home side repeat the heroics they pulled off this time last year against Liverpool.
Interestingly, Alan Pardew's men are also flailing around in search of form. Their recent results mirrored United's with three victories followed by three defeats. But the circumstances were markedly different.
Securing Premier League safety so early, against the odds, made motivation a problem in subsequent fixtures.
It won't be against United.
Wilfried Zaha has an axe to grind. He's been sharpening it in recent weeks. After being dumped by United, the chip on the shoulder remains.
His influence grows at the club. Along with Joe Ledley and James McArthur, the trio mostly excelled against Chelsea and may fancy their chances against a makeshift midfield at a boisterous Selhurst Park.
The compact, vociferous crowd, the underdogs with nothing to lose, the rattled heavyweights with a sworn enemy on the shoulder; there is a whiff of Hollywood melodrama about this one.
And a happy ending is guaranteed for men in red, but which men in red?
United got away with pinching Depay.
Now they must guard against a late smash-and-grab from Liverpool.
BY THE NUMBERS
6 Man United have won only six of 17 EPL matches without Michael Carrick this season. With him, they have won 13 out of 18 matches.
v Crystal Palace (A)
- May 17
v Arsenal (H)
- May 24
v Hull City (A)
v Chelsea (A)
- May 16
v Crystal Palace (H)
- May 24
v Stoke City (A)
- Everton v Sunderland
- Aston Villa v West Ham
- Hull City v Burnley
- Leicester v Southampton
- Newcastle v West Brom
- Stoke v Tottenham
- Crystal Palace v Man United
- Man City v QPR
- Chelsea v Liverpool
- Arsenal v Swansea
Carrick out for the season
Michael Carrick will not play again for Manchester United this season because of a calf injury.
The 33-year-old has not played since suffering the injury against Manchester City on April 12.
It was hoped that the midfielder would return, but he has no chance of featuring in the last three games of the season, Louis van Gaal said.
"Carrick shall not play this season any more," the United manager said yesterday. "We have to focus on next season for him."
Van Gaal revealed that several more players are doubtful for tomorrow morning's (Singapore time) game at Crystal Palace after a virus swept through the squad.
"We have a virus in our dressing room," van Gaal said.
"I have a little bit of pain in the throat. (James) Wilson also has had that for one week but is recovering now. Maybe he can be on the bench (at Palace). A lot of players are suffering (from it)."
The good news for van Gaal is that defenders Jonny Evans (back) and Marcos Rojo (thigh) and Luke Shaw (groin) are back in contention after recovering from injuries.
The Dutchman made his first signing of the summer on Thursday when he agreed to buy Memphis Depay from PSV Eindhoven for £25 million ($50.6m).
Van Gaal has a good relationship with Depay after handing him his international debut for Holland in 2013.
The 21-year-old was also part of van Gaal's World Cup squad, helping them finish third in the tournament after losing to Argentina in the semi-finals.
Despite the fact that Depay has scored 21 goals for PSV this season, van Gaal was reluctant to sign the player before the end of the campaign.
He would have preferred to get the deal done next month, but the 63-year-old said he had to act fast as Paris St Germain were also eyeing Depay.
"I have been forced to sign him," van Gaal said. "I don't want to sign him before the end of the season. We have to focus on our games.
"When you sign a player, you disturb the focus of your present group of players.
"The coming matches are very important for Manchester United and for all of the players. But because of the market, I must handle it (now) - because otherwise, he would have signed for PSG."
Van Gaal's immediate priority is returning to winning ways at Selhurst Park tomorrow morning after a run of three straight defeats, which has put their Champions League hopes in jeopardy.
A few weeks ago, United were being tipped as outside challengers for the title, but they are now 18 points behind Chelsea, who won the league last weekend with three matches to spare, prompting van Gaal to congratulate his former apprentice Jose Mourinho.
"I have sent him a (congratulatory) text already, but I don't know if the message has arrived because I know he changes his number a lot," van Gaal said with a smile.
"But I want to wish my colleague Jose Mourinho and Chelsea congratulations on a well-deserved championship.
"When you see the statistics, you cannot doubt that they are the real champions." - PA Sport.