London: Louis van Gaal will risk the wrath of Manchester United's fans again on Tuesday when his side resume their push for a top-four Premier League finish against Stoke City. Having talked up United's title chances following their 1-0 win at Liverpool, the manager saw his team fall to an abject 1-0 home defeat against Southampton on their last league outing, after which they were booed off by angry fans.
Louis Van Gaal. Pic/AFP
United won 3-1 at second-tier Derby County in the FA Cup on Friday, but Van Gaal admitted afterwards that he "cannot predict" how the supporters would react to another setback. However, captain Wayne Rooney said that criticism of the beleaguered Dutchman was "unfair" and urged his team-mates to use the victory at Derby as a catalyst for an upturn in the league.
"It was obviously a better performance than last week's game, but the manager gave us a lot of freedom to go and play and I think you can see the difference in the team," he said. "You could see we were enjoying it, scoring some good goals and thoroughly deserved to win. We want to win, we always want to win, and we're trying.
"Even when you're giving 100 percent, it doesn't always come off, but thankfully on Friday it did. Hopefully we can put in another performance like this again on Tuesday and take this into the game against Stoke." United were beaten 2-0 at Stoke on Boxing Day, a result that media reports suggested could cost Van Gaal his job, but although he remains in his post, another defeat would expose him to renewed scrutiny.
United begin the weekend in fifth place in the table, five points off the Champions League places, and Stoke could move to within a point of them with victory at Old Trafford. With 15 games of the season to go, Leicester City remain the unexpected leaders, but they now face a potentially season-defining run of fixtures, starting with a home game against Liverpool. Claudio Ranieri's men then face back-to-back trips to Manchester City and Arsenal, but full-back Christian Fuchs says they will relish each occasion.
"We've got three games against big teams and they are important," said the Austrian international. "We want to win against Liverpool and the (5-2) defeat to Arsenal was one of our worst games. It was our biggest defeat of the season and we want to win there.
"I don't see the game against Arsenal as a title decider. We're just having fun. We keep winning at the moment and we will try to do our best." Having preserved their hopes of a third successive FA Cup triumph by beating Burnley 2-1 on Saturday, Arsenal turn their attention back to the title race on Tuesday when they host Southampton. Arsenal are expected to hand starts to Alexis Sanchez and Francis Coquelin, after both players made their first starts in two months against Burnley.
Manchester City, above Arsenal on goal difference and three points below Leicester, visit Sunderland, having kept alive their dream of a trophy quadruple by winning 4-0 at Aston Villa in the FA Cup. City lost Kevin De Bruyne to a knee injury in last week's League Cup semi-final win over Everton, but manager Manuel Pellegrini believes there is sufficient depth in his squad to compensate.
"We have a squad," said the Chilean, whose side have also reached the Champions League last 16, where they will face Dynamo Kiev. "In that place we have Jesus Navas, we have Raheem Sterling, we have David Silva, we have Brandon Barker. Fabian Delph can play also on that side with two strikers."
Tottenham Hotspur will look to preserve their grip on fourth place when they visit Norwich City, while Chelsea, reeling from the news that captain John Terry will leave the club at the end of the season, go to Watford. Chelsea's greatest captain, Terry made the announcement after his side's 5-1 FA Cup win at Milton Keynes Dons on Sunday, explaining that the club had refused to grant him a new contract. "It's not going to be a fairytale ending," the 35-year-old said. "I'm not going to retire at Chelsea."