LONDON: Manchester United’s tentative resurgence will be tested this Sunday (Monday in Manila) when Louis van Gaal pits his side against a Chelsea team slowly finding their feet under his countryman Guus Hiddink.
It is only two weeks since United were booed off at Old Trafford after a 1-0 home defeat by Southampton, but consecutive wins — 3-1 at Derby County in the FA Cup and 3-0 at home to Stoke City in the league — have convinced Van Gaal that his side can still win the title.
United go into the weekend 10 points below leaders Leicester City in fifth place and five points below the Champions League berths.
“We don’t have to exaggerate, but I have the feeling if we shall beat Chelsea — although that is very difficult, because under Guus Hiddink they don’t lose — then I think our league is starting again,” Van Gaal said.
“Michael Carrick said to me and I have the same feeling, the competition is not yet finished, not for Manchester United or the other teams.
“We have the feeling, and that’s because we are winning twice in a row and with sparkling football.”
United played with scarcely seen enterprise against Stoke, rejuvenated captain Wayne Rooney scoring his seventh goal in seven games and Anthony Martial capping a flowing move by curling in a goal that left the pundits purring.
But United remain a puzzling team and Van Gaal continues to be dogged by speculation about his future, with reports emerging on Friday that the club’s hierarchy have made an approach to Jose Mourinho, who was sacked by Chelsea in December.
The excitement sparked by the announcement of Pep Guardiola’s impending arrival as Manchester City manager has only served to underline the sense of uncertainty hovering over the dug-outs at both United and Chelsea.
Mourinho’s shadow looms large above Van Gaal’s head, while Hiddink knows that he is only keeping the seat warm for whomever Chelsea decide to appoint as the long-term successor to the Portuguese.
Guardiola, 45, will join a posse of highly regarded forty-something coaches in England that already includes Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino, and at 64 and 69 respectively, Van Gaal and Hiddink could be forgiven for feeling like yesterday’s men.
Hiddink can at least console himself that unlike his compatriot, he is not deemed to be sitting on an ejector seat.
The objectives of his mission were clearly defined from the start and for the moment he is fulfilling them, having stabilised Chelsea in the league and steered them into the FA Cup fifth round, ahead of their Champions League last 16 clash with Paris Saint-Germain.
But although the champions are unbeaten in nine games under Hiddink, they have won just two of the seven league matches he has overseen, and he sees Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge as an opportunity to make a breakthrough.
“This is a big match,” Hiddink told his pre-game media conference.
“Big clubs through the years, both Manchester United and us like to compete for the title. They have underperformed and we are getting back on track a little bit.
“Of course I would like some more victories instead of the unbeaten draws, but the team is step by step more stable and now we hope to go to in a beautiful spring time.”
Eden Hazard is expected to return for Chelsea, having made a positive impression off the bench in the mid-week 0-0 draw at Watford, and fellow winger Pedro Rodriguez is fit after a groin injury.
Loic Remy (calf) and Radamel Falcao (thigh) remain out and loan signing Alexandre Pato is not yet match-fit, while skipper John Terry could line up against United for the final time in a Chelsea shirt.
United, who have not beaten Chelsea in nine encounters, could welcome back Phil Jones (ankle), but remain without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw.