Louis van Gaal admitted that his side could not cope with Sunderland’s aggression as they slipped to a 2-1 defeat at the Stadium of Light.
Lamine Kone’s header helped Sunderland to the win as he powered Wahbi Khazri’s 82nd-minute corner towards David de Gea. The ball then ricocheted between the goalkeeper and Anthony Martial on the line before ending up in the back of the net. It was officially credited as a De Gea own goal.
Earlier Martial had cancelled out Khazri’s third-minute opener.
It was the Black Cats’ first league victory over United on Wearside since March 1997 and left a crowd of 41,687 with fresh belief that Sam Allardyce can lead the club to safety, while the visitors’ hopes of a top-four finish suffered a major blow.
“You have to win this kind of game,” Van Gaal said. “We can only blame ourselves. We could not cope with Sunderland’s aggression.
“Top four will be very difficult now. We have given five points away. I have told the players the top four will be very difficult. You cannot close your eyes to that.”
Van Gaal, who has spent recent weeks fending off speculation that Jose Mourinho is being lined up to replace him, believes they may have to look elsewhere for their golden ticket with their Europa League campaign resuming in Denmark against Midtjylland on Thursday evening.
He said: “It will be very difficult. It is still possible, but it is very difficult. The way with the Europa League is easier, I think, but also not so easy because there also you have a fantastic European level in that cup, so you have to fight for it.
“You can easily say ‘okay, the other way’ — but also you have to show your capacity, in every match, you have to show it and we didn’t do that today.”
Van Gaal’s position becomes more difficult with every setback, and he knows the consequences of failing to make it into the Champions League could be costly.
Asked if the club’s presence in Europe’s elite competition was the bare minimum, he said: “Yes — but that’s also our aim, so you cannot close your eyes from that. Today it was very disappointing because we needed to win this game because of the big gap between the top four. We want to be there and now it will be very difficult.”
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney insisted that United were not aggressive either.
“We didn’t create enough chances, we were not aggressive enough and didn’t defend set-pieces — it is a disappointing result,” the 30-year-old told BT Sport.
“We didn’t play well. We know that we didn’t win enough second balls. It has cost us and it is not good enough. We have to somehow move on. You don’t know how this league works at times but we know it will be hard to finish top four now.
“Winning the Europa League gets you into the Champions League, but that is a long way away. It is a competition we didn’t want to be in but we are in it now and want to win it. We have to try and start again on Thursday.”