Louis van Gaal might not have realised when he took his seat in the third-floor suite at Wolfsburg’s stadium that it was 10 years to the day since Manchester United played Benfica in Estádio da Luz and suffered one of the more harrowing ordeals of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last decade in the job.
It might be difficult to believe it now but that 2-1 defeat by Benfica – the first time United had been eliminated from the competition before the knockout stages in 10 years – resulted in a question being asked in the post-match inquest about whether the most decorated manager in British football might pay the ultimate price. The headlines included “End of the Line?” and “Fergie on the Brink”, which clearly look faintly ridiculous given what followed. But that was the climate back then and nobody could be sure how the Glazer family would react in their first season in charge. Roy Keane had just been booted out of the club after one outburst too many and one of the United fan websites responded to the defeat with a piece entitled “Ten Reasons Why Fergie Must Go”, accompanied by a mocked-up picture of his P45, signed by Malcolm Glazer.
A decade on, a lot of United’s supporters who have made their way to Volkswagen territory, where even the stadium is named after the city’s most famous symbol, could probably be excused if they were missing the old warhorse and wondering, perhaps, what might have been but for his advancing years. United arrive in Wolfsburg after an anaemic run of five goalless draws in nine games, scoring seven times in the last 10 matches, and chastened by accusations of repetitive blandness. Ferguson managed another three Champions League finals after that dismal night in Lisbon, plus five Premier League titles and two League Cups. It is not a stretch to look at the current Premier League, led by Leicester City, and think he would have it wrapped up by February or March.
Instead Van Gaal has taken United on a different route, whereby he has moved out four strikers this season, bringing in only one, and now laments the team’s lack of finishers. “As a manager you cannot be pleased when it’s like that,” Van Gaal said. “You have to finish because it is the most important aspect of football.” In Germany they must find that blurred and strange. One of the players who was ushered to the door, Javier Hernández, has scored 11 times for Bayer Leverkusen since the start of October. In the same time frame United’s entire squad has managed 10.
The 0-0 against PSV Eindhoven a fortnight ago ago has certainly made them vulnerable as they prepare to face the team who currently lead their Champions League group. Two points separate the top three teams in Group B and PSV, in third, are at home to CSKA Moscow, who have already been eliminated. United, in other words, might have to beat the Bundesliga’s fifth-placed team to avoid dropping into the Europa League’s Thursday-night Sunday-afternoon churn.
On a more positive note a victory would mean winning the group and avoiding Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the first knockout round. It will not be straightforward, however, given that Wolfsburg’s 1-0 defeat against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday was the first time they had lost at home in the Bundesliga in 30 games. At the very least United will need to improve in an attacking sense because leaving the competition at this stage would be a deeply unsatisfactory way to end the club’s first season back in the Champions League. They were given a relatively moderate group and, for Van Gaal, there would be another wave of scrutiny on his “philosophy” – a word, incidentally, he finally appears to have tired of himself – at a time when many supporters are already aggrieved about the prosaic playing style.
At the same time it is worth noting there has been a shift in approach at Old Trafford since Ferguson left. At that time the attitude was that the Premier League and winning in Europe should be seen as equally important and, on occasions, key players would often be rested before trips abroad. Behind the scenes they now say the mind-set is 80-20 in favour of the domestic league, on the basis there has been a marked improvement at several clubs, among them Everton, Southampton and West Ham, who would not usually be regarded as such a threat.
Tellingly the vast amount of television revenue means clubs do not have to sell their better players, as United found out with Sadio Mané at Southampton and Chelsea with Everton’s John Stones, and that has left the Old Trafford board suspecting that in the coming years it will become increasingly difficult for the established top four clubs to maintain their position.
At board level the directors also seem relatively relaxed about the financial hit of not going through, estimated at around £5m. Yet they also know how quickly one match can change a team’s fortunes. Ferguson, still with the old urges, was among the visiting entourage beside the River Aller. “There’s no point killing myself about the outcome,” he said. “You’ve got to trust the way they’re handling it.”