MANCHESTER — It was meant to be a night packed with sentiment. A farewell to players who have served Manchester United so successfully. But if this victory showed anything, it is that Louis van Gaal has a monumental task on his hands to turn this side around.
Empty seats and an atmosphere more akin to a testimonial than a Premier League encounter were unlikely to lift the players much, but even so it failed to inspire confidence that silverware will return within the next 12 months.
Supporters with their glass half full will point to the scoring exploits of 18-year-old striker James Wilson, who took both his goals with the aplomb more associated with seasoned veterans than debuting teenagers.
Others will have raised a smile at the heart-warming antics of the ever-improving Adnan Januzaj and a strong showing from Chris Smalling at the heart of the defense. It is easy to forget that Smalling is still only 24 and has the potential to play a big role in the rebuilding at Old Trafford.
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But elsewhere there were reminders of the departing, the gaps they leave behind and the issues that have dogged their present.
Nemanja Vidic was his composed self after being called into early action from the bench on the only confirmed farewell appearance of the evening. Bound for Inter, the Serb put in the type of assured display that Van Gaal — not confirmed but widely reported to be the new manager — will be searching for from whoever is sought to replace the United captain.
Bringing himself off the bench, Ryan Giggs turned back the clock to deliver a performance, though brief, of high class that included a fizzing free kick that almost capped the evening perfectly. His tears post-match told the story he wasn’t willing to vocalize. There is little chance that he will play here again.
Patrice Evra, though left out of the matchday squad, was also likely to be waving goodbye to the home faithful, and Alexander Buttner’s showing did little to dispel those who doubt he is the successor to the France fullback.
Marouane Fellaini too failed to deliver at the heart of the midfield, and despite only joining the club in the summer, must improve markedly to remain in Van Gaal’s plans come August.
Giggs insisted that a squad overhaul is not the answer to the problems that United has faced this season. Though this may keep morale high in the current squad, it is hard to agree with him despite his legendary status in these parts.
Two fullbacks, at least one central defender, a central midfielder and a striker to support Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are likely to be high on the new manager’s shopping list. Such sprees are rarely met with instant success, and those who chastized David Moyes so soon into his tenure are not going to be appeased right away.
Though Van Gaal wasn’t here, as was rumored prior to kickoff, the 62-year-old will certainly know the size of the task that lies in front of him.
If the stands are to be filled this time next year, then he will have completed a remarkable transformation.
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