Louis van Gaal has been telling Manchester United’s players to think of beating Stoke while they are in bed.
United will make it eight wins from 10 matches if they beat Stoke at the Britannia Stadium today.
The idea of travelling to Staffordshire for a lunch-time kick-off on New Year’s Day may not appeal to many people — particularly those who enjoyed a heavy night seeing in the new year. But Van Gaal is relishing the opportunity of gaining ground on Manchester City and Chelsea who play Sunderland and Tottenham, respectively, later in the day.
Van Gaal took little notice of Chelsea and City’s slip-ups last weekend — United themselves failed to take advantage as they drew at Spurs — and the Dutchman insists only his players will decide whether they become genuine title contenders in the coming weeks.
“You have to always do it by yourself and not depend on results of the opponent,” the United manager said.
“You have to be busy with yourself, with your preparation, and the imagination of the game.
“All the players have to do that — dream of the game already, you have to play the game already in your bed.”
Although United sit in third position after a nine-match unbeaten run, Van Gaal is yet to see a completely satisfactory performance from his team.
The 3-1 win over Newcastle on St Stephen’s Day had the hallmarks of a victory from the Alex Ferguson era, but Van Gaal was still not totally happy.
The Dutchman is so demanding that he says he has enjoyed just a single “perfect” performance from one of his teams during his 27-year career.
And that came 20 years ago when he coached an Ajax team containing the likes of Edwin van der Saar, Edgar Davids and a 19-year-old Patrick Kluivert to a 2-0 Champions League win at Real Madrid.
“That was a perfect game — the only one in my eyes,” Van Gaal said.
“I have not achieved that with Manchester United.”
The fact United dropped points at Spurs thanks to Hugo Lloris’ brilliance, and at Villa Park, where the hosts played the final 25 minutes with 10 men, rankles with Van Gaal.
“In the last three games — Aston Villa, Newcastle, Tottenham — we should have had nine points,” the former Barcelona manager said.
“Then, we would (have) four more points and we would be only six points (behind Chelsea).”
Reflecting on his first five months in England, Van Gaal said he had been taken aback by the support he had received from United fans despite the club’s stuttering start.
“I have never had the experience that when you lose or draw at home that the fans still applaud you, showing their belief in you. Never,” Van Gaal said.
“In Barcelona, (they wave) white handkerchiefs. In Bayern, they whistle. In Amsterdam, Ajax, they are shouting for someone else.
“Here, they stand up, and applaud. Unbelievable. That’s why I’m thanking the fans because they were very important in my first six months.”
Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera could return from illness and injury, respectively, for the Stoke match and Angel di Maria may feature after Van Gaal played down the seriousness of a pelvic injury. “He’s coming back. It’s not serious,” Van Gaal said.
For his part, Stoke manager Mark Hughes believes Van Gaal is the “strong figurehead” United need.
“He seems to be the right figurehead for the club,” Hughes said.
“He’s the guy you sense they need given last year was a time of transition for them.
“They’re still going through that process to a certain extent so they need a strong person at the head of the club and he certainly gives that impression.”
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