Van Gaal on the ropes, Hiddink comes out swinging



Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal is at risk of a knockout punch as his side visit Stoke City in the weightiest fixture of the Premier League’s jam-packed Boxing Day programme.

The 64-year-old Dutchman is reportedly one or two bad results away from the sack after a run of six winless games that has seen his team drop to fifth place in the Premier League and exit the Champions League.

Amid intense speculation that he is on the brink of being replaced by Jose Mourinho, Van Gaal stormed out of his pre-game press conference after just five minutes, wishing stunned reporters an ironic “merry Christmas”.

In a subsequent interview with MUTV, he acknowledged that the trip to Stoke was a “must-win game”.

“When you have lost three times in a row, then you need a victory. We have focused ourselves to do that, but it is not easy,” he said.

“Stoke City have won against Manchester City, for example, and it’s a special ground. It is not easy with a lot of circumstances that are not suitable always to playing good football.”

Stoke’s draughty Britannia Stadium is a forbidding place at the best of times and it has proved particularly hostile of late, with Chelsea and Manchester City among the visiting teams to have succumbed to Mark Hughes’s side.

Hughes, a former United striker, expects Van Gaal to turn the situation around, but is unsentimental about the prospect of adding to the Dutchman’s woes.

“They have got good players, they have got a good squad,” said the Welshman, whose side have won only one of their last four league games.

“They have got good individual talent. You would expect at some point they would start to click again. Hopefully we won’t allow that at the weekend.”

Mourinho’s sacking by Chelsea highlighted the dangers of managing in the English top flight and it is with interim manager Guus Hiddink in the dug-out that the champions will tackle high-flying Watford.

Reprising a role he previously performed in 2009 after the dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Hiddink has appealed to the personal pride of his players as he seeks to lift the London club from their lowly position of 15th place.

“They must have a heart full of the desire of an amateur,” said Hiddink.

“If they don’t have that desire then I will say: ‘Thank you very much.’ I don’t need players who don’t have the desire.”

Hiddink watched from the stands last weekend as Chelsea turned in a vastly improved performance in a 3-1 win over Sunderland, but Watford, seventh in the table and chasing a fifth straight win, will be a different prospect.

Watford’s recent success echoes that of front-runners Leicester City, who continue to defy expectations ahead of their trip to Liverpool on Saturday.

Bottom of the table a year ago, Leicester have electrified English football this season and manager Claudio Ranieri is revelling in his team’s new status as the neutral’s darling.

“I think if we go through this fantastic moment — because now we have Liverpool, (Manchester) City and then Bournemouth, who are in great form, then Tottenham — maybe if we are still top, not only Leicester fans are behind us, but a lot of English fans as well, because Leicester I think are a likeable team,” said the Italian.

“Maybe the people say: ‘If my team don’t win, I’m very happy if Leicester win,’ and this is a good thing.”

Having established themselves as Leicester’s number one challengers with an impressive 2-1 win at home to third-place Manchester City on Monday, Arsenal travel to mid-table Southampton.

Southampton are without a win in six games, but Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has warned his team that the victory over City will soon be forgotten if they allow their level to drop at St Mary’s.

“The confidence is very high,” he said. “Confidence is built up very slowly and goes very quickly, so let’s take care of our next performance.”

City, six points below Leicester, hope to have captain Vincent Kompany available after a calf injury when they host second-bottom Sunderland.