Louis van Gaal and Memphis Depay looking for cup redemption at United
Manchester United have gone from the squeaking of bums to the clutching of straws.
"Squeaky bum time" was, of course, the famous phrase used by Sir Alex Ferguson to describe that moment toward the end of the season when the race for the game's major trophies became uncomfortably but excitingly close.
Now, though, United must take solace in the hope of smaller yet potentially still significant gains. They remain in two cup competitions, the Europa League and the FA Cup, with an excellent chance of progressing to the next round in both.
They are languishing in the Premier League, looking strikingly inferior to the four teams -- Leicester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City -- above them in the top division.
Yet they can look to Arsenal's recent history to see how a successful run in a knockout tournament can pave the way for a title challenge. The north London club have been much mocked for their failure to claim a league title since 2004, but the team spirit that has come from their capture of two FA Cups in succession cannot not be underestimated as a factor in their latest attempt. Manchester City, meanwhile, can look to their 2011 FA Cup win as the platform for their current status as perennial contenders on the domestic scene.
Wayne Rooney, more than most, understands the need to get back to the days of the victory parade.
Neither is it as if his teammates are wholly new to success, with the likes of David De Gea, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young title winners at United. Moreover, with the tightness of this year's title race, the argument can be made that United -- many of whose players are performing well below the level of which they are capable -- are not so far as they look from being among a cluster of favourites next season.
The conversation must inevitably return to the fate of Louis van Gaal, who it seems will now remain in place until the end of this campaign. The club, which has remained silent on this issue, is in a perfect stalemate over his tenure. It is his final job in management, and it would be an unceremonious end to the career of a genius to be dismissed now.
It is also unlikely that he would walk away from a position where by doing so he stands to lose millions of pounds. It is unlikely that executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, who brought him in, will wield the ax over a man he has so strongly supported. It is therefore important for Van Gaal to see the closing moments of this season as an opportunity for redemption, which by most measures -- of his own standards -- has so far been a failure.
Throughout the squad, there are players who have had years to forget. The form of Memphis Depay, and his failure so far to adapt to the English game, has unfortunate echoes of that of Mateja Kezman. Like Depay, Kezman was spectacular at PSV Eindhoven before moving to the Premier League and suffering an unaccountable slump with Chelsea.
Like Depay, Kezman appeared to have all the gifts to thrive in his new surroundings, boasting quick feet, exceptional acceleration and decisive finishing. Yet his career at Stamford Bridge imploded, yielding just seven goals in 41 appearances before he moved on to Atletico Madrid the following season. Like Depay, Kezman's struggles in a tougher league were blamed upon his attitude.
Yet Depay still has a great deal of time to put things right, and that can begin with these last few games. After all, he has produced his best performances of his difficult time at Old Trafford in a cup competition where the stakes were particularly high. Against Club Brugge, in a Champions League playoff in August last year, he scored two superb goals to bring his team from a goal behind to a vital 3-1 win. That outing might be seen by some as a false dawn, but Depay could use it instead as a reminder that he is at his best when he plays instinctively and without fear.
What is true for Depay is also true for United -- that their best moments this season have come when they have cast off Van Gaal's defensive shackles and trusted in their talent. It is a sad reflection of their form that they may prevail not because of Van Gaal's directions, but in spite of them. Or perhaps the Dutchman, in what increasingly looks to be his last year in management, can rouse his team to play with the freedom of a team with little left to lose.
The club are some distance from their glory years -- but with the aid of the Europa League or the FA Cup, they could begin the long walk back.
Musa Okwonga is a football author, poet, musician, broadcaster and social commentator. He is on Twitter @Okwonga.