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Louis van Gaal’s Man United tenure a strangely intriguing wreck

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Louis Van Gaal has left the building.

The 64-year-old Dutchman is out as Manchester United’s manager after the club confirmed the worst kept secret in sport on Monday with his three-year contract cut short after United’s failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Two years after arriving at Old Trafford, we are all still a little confused as to what actually happened as the allure of LVG had us bamboozled, disgusted and intrigued, while perhaps now even a little sad that it’s over.

Van Gaal divided opinion among United’s fans, former players, pundits and the media for most of his tenure at Old Trafford. Now the end has arrived we’re not really sure if United are better off, worse off or just in a similar spot to before LVG arrived in 2014.

[ MORE: LVG releases statement after exit ] 

Towards the end there’s been an inevitability about his departure — despite his insistence he’d be in charge next season — but it’s worth noting that when the history books look back at Van Gaal’s time in charge of one of the world’s biggest teams, history will likely be kind to him. Right now it seems like a failure but compared to David Moyes‘ time in charge, it’s not. He delivered two top five finishes and an FA Cup trophy even if he couldn’t get them back to the UCL for next season. From that point of view he failed to meet his targets but despite all of the unrest about the tactics, personnel choices and his character, he didn’t miss his targets by much.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Despite the tedious, glacial rate of play he fostered among his team, there were flashes of brilliance throughout his reign which kept you interested, kept you thinking that maybe, just maybe, LVG’s boys would spark into life and deliver the goods. Anthony Martial‘s late goal against Liverpool this season. Marcus Rashford‘s double against Arsenal. The 4-2 home win against Manchester City and the win at City earlier this season. All of those moments gave you a notion that maybe the previous struggles were all part of Van Gaal’s masterplan.

It has been said many times before in sport and I think United’s fans can vouch for this after the past two years: it’s not the losing, it’s the hope that kills you.

[ MORE: Cantona wants Guardiola over Mourinho ]

He arrived after success with the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup and a mystique surrounding his name after the decades he spent on the European continent. Under LVG, United were meant to return to a swashbuckling giant, a force to be reckoned with in England and Europe. Yet it became clear quite early in his reign that that wasn’t going to be the case.

From his bizarre player selections to his penchant for slow, possession based play, Van Gaal quickly ate away at any excitement United’s fans had for him. Every now and then he would deliver memorable moments like throwing himself to the ground in the technical area, an impromptu speech on the mic at the end of season awards dinner and blurting out something about sex masochism in the media to keep everyone interested.

[ MORE: Best moments of LVG’s bizarre tenure

He told his players to be “horny” for the win, called out Sam Allardyce‘s long-ball accusations and had a go at journalists most weekends. The LVG sideshow delivered. The play on the pitch didn’t and that’s what ultimately cost him his job as his three-year project to return United to greatness ground to a halt. There was so much to dislike about Van Gaal’s egotistic comments and brash demeanor but at the same time there were so many reasons to admire him.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Louis van Gaal, manager of Manchester Uniited speaks during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first leg match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Aon Training Complex on March 9, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
Van Gaal is a man who led the club like Sir Alex Ferguson did, someone who knew what it meant to be at the helm of a global team and treat the fans with the respect they deserve and foster a family environment throughout the club. He put everything into it, even if he didn’t show it as he sat in the dugout writing notes on his clipboard during games. That angered fans and pundits who wanted to see more aggression a la Jurgen Klopp. They wanted more excitement and LVG couldn’t deliver it.

United’s fans were simply bored of seeing their team play. They recorded their lowest ever goals tally in the PL era this season. They went 11 home games in a season without scoring a goal in the first half. They simply didn’t deliver an exciting product on the pitch.

Van Gaal pointed to his philosophy and way of playing and he certainly stamped that on the team, successful or not. They led the PL in average possession this season and in backwards passes and although he managed to get through his ideas clearly to the players, it just didn’t work in the PL.

Manchester United Press Conference

All the time, though, it was interesting to see the situation unfold.

Many times United’s fans didn’t want to look, just like when you pass a car wreck on the road but are guilty of rubber-necking. Everybody, no matter what team you supported, wanted to drive by and have a long glance at United’s issues and then have their say on the matter without being up close at the scene to deal with the injury crisis’, plus having to blood youngsters (somewhat successfully) early, help under-performing players recover and then deal with the pressure which comes with managing such an illustrious club.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United celebrates with winning goalscorer Anthony Martial of Manchester United after victory in The Emirates FA Cup semi final match between Everton and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on April 23, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Perhaps the most damning factor of his tenure was player recruitment. Van Gaal was given over $375 million to rebuild a team demoralized by Moyes and then decimated in the summer the Dutchman arrived. The only money he spent wisely was on Martial and Daley Blind plus helped the likes of Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson break into the team.

Mercurial talents such as Angel di Maria, Memphis and Radamel Falcao just didn’t fit into his system. Until the bitter end he spoke about the club’s failure to get in his transfer targets, the players he wanted and tried to defend his teams lack of cutting edge in the final third. In the end, his excuses fell on deaf ears. He tried to explain himself too much over the two years and his relationship with the media soured over time.

One of the most alluring things about Van Gaal is his personality. He is brash, confident and outspoken because he’s been there, seen it and done it. He’s won trophies in Holland, Spain, Germany and now in England after his FA Cup success. He is an Amsterdammer who believes in himself and his ability as a manager. That provided countless moments in press conferences where awkward silences would be conjured by LVG, all the time glaring at a journalist who dared to question his authority, his team selections or the mentality of his team. He continued that until the end and went at the media time and time again.

His last words to the media as Manchester United’a manager were at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, just as news was breaking from people in that very room that Jose Mourinho was set to take his job from him.

One last time he was bullish, combative and forthright.

Asking questions to Van Gaal over the past few years in crowded press conferences (they were never empty because, well, nobody knew what he would say next) myself and others always felt his eyes latch onto you as he sized you up and decided if you were worthy of an answer. He played the game. He always kept everyone guessing, just like the man he tried to replicate at United, Sir Alex Ferguson, did. His need for control seemed overbearing but he was old school, a former school teacher from Amsterdam who was the heir to Johan Cruyff at Ajax but never got the chance to break through and replace his idol.

If his playing career wasn’t anything special, his career as a coach has been. He built a dynasty at Ajax, won major trophies with huge clubs and led the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals in 2014 with a team that excited the fans. His time with Manchester United will live long in the memory despite two seasons of mediocrity for a club of their size. Fourth-place and fifth-place Premier League finishes will not be celebrated in 10 years to come by United’s fans but they’ll be sat having a pint in a pub saying “do you remember when Van Gaal…”

His legacy won’t be glorious among United’s fans but it will be memorable. Van Gaal’s legend lives on as intrigue and mystique remain as he saunters out of the exit door at Old Trafford.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United salutes the fans after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Eden Hazard suffers fracture ahead of Man City in UCL, El Clasico

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Eden Hazard is set to miss the Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League first leg against Man City with a broken fibula.

Hazard had only returned to the lineup for two matches following a three-month absence with an ankle injury.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 29-year-old has made just 15 appearances for Real since arriving in a big-money move from Chelsea, scoring once with five assists.

He has never appeared in less than 30 league matches over the course of his career, five times missing one or zero matches.

Of course, all of his absences show that Real is very comfortable playing and winning without Hazard. Zinedine Zidane’s men lost Sunday to drop behind Barcelona in La Liga, but that was just its second loss of the league season.

Real will be taxed in depth like its rivals, with Wednesday’s visit from Man City followed by an El Clasico at the Bernabeu on March 1. Barcelona hosts Napoli on Tuesday.

Whether you like the playmaker or despise him, there must be some sense of sympathy for his latest ailments (even if Man City and Barca fans will likely offer a Jerry Seinfeld-esque, “That’s a shame”).

Watch Live: Manchester United, Wolves host bottom three battlers

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A pair of Premier League basement dwellers face stiff tests in their bids to win another season in the top flight.

Manchester United hosts Watford on NBCSN while Wolves welcome Norwich City on CNBC as both home sides aim to improve the health of their top four hopes in 9 a.m. ET kickoffs.

[ WATCH: Man Utd-Watford | Wolves-Norwich ]

Lineups notes from both matches:

LINEUPS

Manchester United

Watford


Wolves

Norwich City

Three Serie A matches suspended due to virus deaths in Italy

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ROME (AP) Three Serie A soccer matches scheduled for Sunday in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto were suspended late Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China.

On orders from the Italian government, the games called off were: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria, Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari.

Three other matches in Genoa, Turin and Rome on Sunday are going ahead as scheduled.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown on Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the coronavirus from China, and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

“The government is working on urgent measures to decisively confront and contain the cases of coronavirus contagion,” read a letter from Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora to Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago shortly before midnight local time on Saturday. “Those measures also include the sports world in order to prevent risks and to better take care of the health of those involved in the events and competition.

“Following measures taken by the cabinet for protective reasons and maximum precaution, on orders of the government I’m asking you to suspend all sports events of every level and discipline planned for the Lombardy and Veneto regions on Sunday.”

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses.

The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.

A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A postmortem on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

PL Sunday preview: Wolves, Man United, Everton, Arsenal in action

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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures promise to have a wide-range of action, as Wolves, Manchester United and Arsenal all take the field.

[ STREAM: Every PL match live ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Norwich City  — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Gold and NBCSports.com

Wolverhampton Wanderers are heading into Sunday’s match against bottom dwellers Norwich City with fresh, positive inertia.

On Thursday, Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men thumped Espanyol 4-0 in the knockout stages of the Europa League, giving Wolves a much-needed boost of confidence. The club, who has yet to win in Premier League play since January 18, ended a two-game streak without generating a goal against the Spanish side.

Wolves are the clear favorites heading into Molineux Stadium on Sunday. But on the other side stands a well-rested and hungry Norwich, who before going to winter break, showcased class and discipline against Liverpool in their last league showing.

Daniel Farke‘s side are eight points out of the safe zone but time is running out. The sense of urgency is at an all-season high for the Canaries, believers of their under-appreciated strengths.

“They (Wolves) are playing in Europe, they have kept three clean sheets, they have individual quality and it is a huge task,” Farke said. “But I don’t see any easy fixtures at this stage. It is about us. We always have a chance if we are good at our topics.

“People can write us off and say we have no chance to close the gap. But I don’t agree. It is possible.”

INJURIES: Wolves — OUT: Ruben Vinagre (hamstring) | Norwich — OUT: Timm Klose (knee), Sam Byram (hamstring)

Manchester United vs. Watford — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

History and data say Watford, who have never won a league game at Old Trafford, stand no chance against Manchester United on Sunday.

But if one victory inspired a mostly-lethargic Hornets this season under Nigel Pearson it was the 2-0 win over United at Vicarage Road. The second-to-last side went on a six-match unbeaten streak following the said victory. It brought the club back to life, lifting them out of the bottom three.

Watford have since faltered and dropped back below the red line, but Pearson promises to stick to his philosophical guns.

“We approach every game in a very similar way and that is to try and be as positive as we can,” he said. “We’ll go out there and we’ll do what we can to win the game, we’ve not changed our approach, it’s just that results sometimes change how people perceive things.”

United will certainly look different, as Odion Ighalo is expected to make his home debut against his former club following his arrival in earlier this month.

United, who stand in the seventh spot with 38 points, have a clear window of opportunity to surpass fifth-place Tottenham with a victory. Prior to Sunday’s match, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer addressed questions regarding consistency.

“It is team selection – you’ve got to maybe rotate in Europe like we’ve done, then maybe go back to what we were at Chelsea this week,” Gunnar Solskjaer said. “I feel that Bruno [Fernandes] and Odion [Ighalo] coming in will get more goals in the team. That’s been lacking. The games we’ve lost – West Ham, Burnley, Palace, Bournemouth – we’ve had chances but we haven’t scored goals.”

Perhaps Ighalo could finally contribute towards a win at Old Trafford with Watford jerseys on the field.

INJURIES: Manchester United — Paul Pogba (ankle), Axel Tuanzebe (thigh), Marcus Rashford (back) | Watford — OUT: Daryl Janmaat (knee), Tom Cleverley (match fitness)

Arsenal vs. Everton — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Subplots reign supreme ahead of Everton’s visit to the Emirates.

Mesut Ozil, who missed the Gunners’ 1-0 Europa League victory, and Andres Gomes, 16 weeks after an ankle dislocation and fracture, are both expected to return to action. Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta and Carlo Ancelotti will meet for the first time after being linked to each other’s position before the start of the new year.

Perhaps the most significant one, however – at least to Everton – is that it’s been 24 years since the Toffees won at Arsenal. If they can pull it off this time around, the Liverpool-based side will be one step closer to the European dream.

“We have to be focused on Arsenal,” Ancelotti said. “Then there are very important games after. There’s [Manchester] United, Chelsea, Liverpool. After these four games, we can see what is going on for Europe.”

“This is a really important game against a strong team, away, but we have to have confidence to do our best and try to win. We’ve got 13 games to go and have got ourselves in a decent position,” he said. “It gives us the platform to have a decent season. I think we’ve done okay. We’ve had huge problems over six weeks and fair play to the squad for showing that resilience.”

Everton have picked up 17 points out the 24 possible under the Italian, while Arsenal have only experienced two wins under the Spaniard.

INJURIES: Arsenal — Cedric Soares (knee), Kieren Tierney (shoulder), Callum Chambers (knee), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (knee) | Everton — OUT: Jean-Phillipe Gbamin (thigh)