Darren Fletcher’s Manchester United’s credentials are so unquestionable that the West Brom midfielder, 15 years a player at Old Trafford, admitted he lined up on the wrong side of the tunnel before his new team’s surprise victory.
Which makes the Scottish international’s analysis of his old club’s status all the more relevant, as Fletcher pointed out that anything less than a place in the Champions League and concerted bid for the title is unacceptable for Louis van Gaal next term.
Just 24 hours after Van Gaal was talking about his plans to compete for the championship in 12 months, Fletcher was helping Albion inflict a third consecutive league defeat on United, the first time they have suffered such a run in over 13 years.
A fourth straight league loss at Crystal Palace on Saturday would mark the club’s worst run since February, 1979. None of which tends to support Van Gaal’s optimism and all of which seems to add credence to Fletcher’s analysis that the Dutch manager must deliver for United next season or face the consequences.
“The aim for United this season was the top four, that was realistic,” said Fletcher. “Though saying that is a hard thing for Manchester United to say, just accepting top four. You can only do that for one season.
“But I think they will go on and do that but then next season they have to challenge for the title. There is no doubt about that. The fans expect it and Manchester United need to be there.
“Any United side talking about accepting the top four is just not good enough. They have to up it a level. There is no doubt they have shown flashes this season, they had the run before these last three games and played some fantastic football, the kind maybe the manager wants, but then three defeats come along and you think: ‘What has happened?’
“I am sure they will spend. Youngsters will be given a chance. The manager knows football and he has great belief in his methods and everyone has to buy into that. If anybody isn’t, it won’t work but I think the United lads are buying into it and believe in it.”
Whether Fletcher’s former team-mates believe it or not, the fact is that United are now embroiled in a fight to be sure of fourth place, a situation that seemed unthinkable before the recent defeats to Chelsea, Everton and Albion.
The lack of goal-scoring form, which included Robin van Persie’s second-half penalty being saved by Boaz Myhill, certainly does not augur well for the run-in, although Van Gaal is adamant moving Rooney back to his favoured striking position is not the only answer.
“I’m missing a striker that scores and any striker who scores. If it’s Van Persie or Falcao or Wayne Rooney who scores the goal I’m very happy and the team is very happy.
“So, no, because of the injuries of Shaw and Carrick I could not play in the way we always play so I have to change and I did that also in the match before Chelsea because I had to.”
Whether Van Persie is around to witness what promises — and needs — to be another summer of upheaval at Old Trafford remains to be seen, with Van Gaal confirming his fellow Dutchman has been relieved of penalty-taking duties after his potentially costly miss on Saturday.
Indeed, it is symptomatic of United’s woeful striking form at present that Van Gaal could not name his designated penalty taker after the game, other than to say it definitely is not Van Persie or Rooney.
“No, Van Persie is now at the end of the road, it is always like that,” said Van Gaal. “Wayne has missed also so when you miss you are at the bottom again.”
For Fletcher, who won the free-kick that led to Jonas Olsson’s deflected winning goal, a productive return to his old club was tinged with great sorrow as Albion and United players wore black armbands as a mark of respect to Rebecca Ellison, the wife of former team-mate Rio Ferdinand, who died on Saturday from cancer.
“It was devastating news about Rio’s wife,” said Fletcher. “Having met her, she was a fantastic person, wife, fantastic mother and it was a real shock and our thoughts are with Rio, his family and most importantly, his three children.
“I think the biggest thing is to let him know that we are there if needs us. We are only a phone call away and I’m sure that will be the case for many people.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-1-4-1):
De Gea 6; Valencia 8, Smalling 6, McNair 5 (Falcao 83), Blind 5 (Di Maria 63, 7); Mata 7, Herrera 6, Fellaini 6, Young 7; Rooney 6, Van Persie 5.
(4-5-1): Myhill 9; Dawson 6, McAuley 7, Olsson 8, Lescott 7; Gardner 7 (Wisdom 88), Mulumbu 6 (Baird 75, 6), Yacob 7, Fletcher 7, Brunt 8; Berahino 5 (Ideye 79, 6).
Anthony Taylor 6.
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