Manchester United still 'struggling' despite winning streak - Van Gaal
MANCHESTER -- Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal said that the club are still struggling through games, despite winning four in a row in all competitions, culminating in Wednesday night's 1-0 win against Watford at Old Trafford.
The league victory against the Hertfordshire club moved Van Gaal's men level on points with fourth-placed Manchester City, although Manuel Pellegrini's men have a game in hand. It was the first time that United have won back-to-back league matches since November, while City have lost three in a row.
Van Gaal, though, still thinks that these are tough times for United and refused to get carried away by his club's recent upturn.
"We are fighting and we are struggling but, in the struggle, we can play fantastic matches," Van Gaal said. "We have to go step by step. We have four wins in a row, fantastic, but we have a very small selection of players at the moment. When players are coming back, they are not fit enough. You saw how [Marcos] Rojo is struggling.
"You can see the statistics, how many players are injured and from what date, then you can see how difficult it was. We are still in with the possibility of being in the top four of the league and I don't think that's bad -- and we're in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and last 16 of the Europa League. But it also means it's a full programme."
The Dutchman is taking heart from his time at Bayern Munich when they played 55 matches and reached the Champions League final in 2010, eventually losing 2-0 against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan.
The display against Watford had been a slog until Juan Mata's clever free kick settled the game late on.
"I think the free kick was a fantastic shot of Juan Mata," Van Gaal said. "The performance was not so good, no. It was very difficult to play good football and it became a physical game."
"When you see the size of the players of Watford and our size, we are not in a beneficial situation, so I have to give compliments to my players. Watford pressed high, we gave the ball away and they had chances but Timothy [Fosu-Mensah] has saved us several times because of his speed, so I was pleased he was on the pitch."
Van Gaal admitted that he was considering taking Mata off before he scored his goal -- but opted against it and was rewarded by the Spaniard. When asked about the possibility of a substitution, the United manager replied: "Yes, that was true because he was limping at the time."
Defender Fosu-Mensah was making his first start, while Michael Carrick -- a stand-in centre-back recently -- was left out of the side, having stated this week that he has not been offered a new contract. Van Gaal said that Carrick had been "rested."
Looking ahead, Van Gaal denied that winning the Europa League is still United's best route back into the Champions League.
"No, I think Liverpool is also a very nasty opponent," he said. "They won 3-0 against City. It's a great victory but also because of the circumstances as Man City have just played in the Capital One Cup final and won."
Quique Sanchez Flores, the Watford head coach, was undone by two familiar faces, who he once coached; Mata, the match winner, and David De Gea, who kept a clean sheet. Flores described De Gea as "an amazing player and an amazing man" and was seen embracing the Spanish goalkeeper at half-time.
Discussing Mata's goal, Flores said: "It did not surprise me. I have known him since he was 14. We can't do anything that he has scored this kind of goal."
Arindam is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @ARejSport.