Louis van Gaal primed to take Man Utd back to the big time
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal says he faces the biggest game yet of his Old Trafford tenure in Wednesday's Champions League play-off round second leg away to Club Brugge.
United lead 3-1 from last week's first leg, but having been hired specifically to restore the club to a place among the European elite, Van Gaal knows how damaging failure at the Jan Breydel Stadium would be.
Marouane Fellaini's added-time header at Old Trafford gives United a very welcome two-goal advantage, but with Club Brugge having already overturned a 2-1 deficit against Panathinaikos in the third qualifying round, the manager has warned his players to be on their mettle.
Asked if the game was the most important of his 13-month United reign, Van Gaal replied: "Yes, because it's our aim.
"It was last year our aim to participate in the Champions League and we're still not participating. It's the preliminary round, so it's very important.
"You have to play the game and at the end you have to have scored one more goal than the opponent.
"They have won also against Greek opponents with 3-0, so they are capable to do that and with the support of the fans, we have seen the fans in Manchester, so I think they shall support them a lot."
While United have struggled for goals in the Premier League, scoring only two in their three games to date, they sparkled against Club Brugge, with Memphis Depay scoring his first two goals in the club's colours and setting up Fellaini's important late header.
However, Depay could not replicate that display in last weekend's 0-0 draw with Newcastle United, prompting Van Gaal to remark drily that his performance against Club Brugge may have given the 21-year-old "too much" confidence.
Depay is nonetheless expected to keep his place in the team, while Van Gaal must decide whether to keep faith with Bastian Schweinsteiger, who made his full debut against Newcastle but faded badly.
Club Brugge depleted
Club Brugge head coach Michel Preud'homme can only envy the selection dilemmas facing Van Gaal as he attempts to forge a team from a squad that has been ravaged by injury.
Experienced captain Timmy Simons will miss out after injuring his thigh at Old Trafford, joining Stefano Denswil, Bjorn Engels, Lior Refaelov, Felipe Gedoz, Bernie Ibini and Jose Izquierdo on the sidelines.
Centre-back Brandon Mechele is suspended after being sent off for two bookable offences in the first leg, but striker Tom De Sutter, who joins Bursaspor after the game, has declared himself fit despite sitting out the 2-0 loss to Zulte-Waregem at the weekend through illness.
Speaking ahead of the second leg, Preud'homme said it would require "a great miracle" for Club Brugge to reach the group phase for the first time since 2005.
Recent history favours his team, however, with Club Brugge unbeaten in their last 10 European home matches and United having lost their last two away games in the Champions League, against Olympiakos and Bayern Munich in 2014.
The turnaround against Panathinaikos, who were beaten 3-0 in Bruges after winning the first leg 2-1, should also give the 'Blauw-Zwart' (Blue-Black) heart, but Preud'homme played down the significance of that result in the context of Wednesday's match.
"With all due respect to Panathinaikos, the level of Manchester United is different to the level of Panathinaikos," he told journalists at his pre-match media conference.
"Against Panathinaikos, 1-0 was enough here. Maybe you can tell me the last team to beat Manchester United from two goals down?"
Van Gaal, however, is refusing to entertain daydreams about who United might be drawn against in Thursday's group-stage draw.
"First we have to beat Brugge and that's difficult enough," he said.
"So let's wait and see if we are continuing in this Champions League, because that is the most important thing." Agencies
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