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Jose Mourinho Lurks As Louis van Gaal Falters

Man United 1 Norwich 2: The questions raised to Louis van Gaal were direct; the answers to the point. Would he consider resigning? “No.” Did...

Man United 1 Norwich 2: The questions raised to Louis van Gaal were direct; the answers to the point.

Would he consider resigning? “No.”

Did he feel he still had the backing of Manchester United’s owners? “Yes.”

Manchester United’s manager, though, carried a chastened air as he took in the potential consequences of a third successive defeat. His usual bullishness had deserted him. Van Gaal is fully aware that his days at Old Trafford may be numbered.

It does not help him that Jose Mourinho is freely available, having been sacked by Chelsea on Thursday, and has given indications he is interested in taking over at United.

Pep Guardiola, too, has been put forward as a contender for the position.

Norwich deserved their first victory at Old Trafford since 1989, a result that lifted them out of the Premier League’s bottom three and caused United to drop out of the top four.

Alex Neil suggested it was the best result of his fledgling managerial career. It left Van Gaal at his lowest ebb since taking charge at Old Trafford a little under 18 months ago.

A mediocre season has taken a significant turn for the worse over the last month. During the early part of the campaign, United’s cautious style of football had drawn criticism from fans and former players alike, but at least they were winning. Van Gaal does not now even have the comfort of good results to fall back on; his side have gone six matches without a victory, a sequence that has brought about a group-stage departure from the Champions League and a tumble to fifth place in the Premier League.

As it stands, the former Netherlands manager is set to step down at the end of next season, when his three-year contract expires. So far, United have given no indication that they wish to bring that exit date forward, but difficult decisions lie ahead for the club’s board.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward spoke briefly to Van Gaal after Saturday’s defeat, before reporting back to the Glazer family, the club’s owners. It would be difficult for Woodward to gloss over the fact that United showed little sign of halting their poor run of form, managing only two shots on target against a team who had won one of their previous 11 league matches.

Defender Phil Jones has acknowledged that the players must share the blame for that. “We have to take responsibility,” Jones said.

“There’s no other way. The manager picks the team and the team have to go out and do their best. We need to stick together. The players in there aren’t hiding behind anyone. We have to take responsibility. The manager is doing all he can and is doing a terrific job.”

Van Gaal’s side lack an attacking threat, and are short on confidence. To make matters worse, their previously reliable defence is failing too.

Before Saturday, United had conceded just one league goal at home all season. Norwich plundered two, with Cameron Jerome striding through to score after the excellent Nathan Redmond had burst from his own half to create the chance, and Alex Tettey toe-poked a second from the edge of the penalty area as the hosts were caught by a swift counter attack.

Anthony Martial, the best of a bad bunch in attack for Van Gaal’s side, pulled one back, firing high into the net after Ashley Young’s cross had reached him via Wayne Rooney’s head, but that did not lead to the kind of late siege on goal that was a certainty when United sides of old were chasing a game. Juan Mata saw a free-kick pushed away by keeper Declan Rudd, while Chris Smalling headed a late chance wide. Norwich otherwise saw the game out comfortably, to leave Van Gaal searching for words of hope.

“I always think a good result helps the confidence to increase and that is what we need now,” he said.

“We can show a professional attitude and a fantastic spirit in the training session, but you need that result. And of course, we need it much more now after our first home league defeat of the season.”

Norwich’s victory was a sweet one for their Republic of Ireland winger Robbie Brady, who began his career at Old Trafford but made just one substitute appearance in the League Cup before leaving.

“If you’re going to win here you maybe need that bit of luck and we had that early on,” Brady said. “But we held out and got the couple of goals. It’s a great win for us.

“To come here and play is special but to win is even better. I’m a Norwich player now but it’s great to come back to one of the best stadiums in the world and get a win.”

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