By Martyn Herman
SEASONAL cheer has been scarce for Louis van Gaal after a six-match winless sequence for his Manchester United side intensified rumours that he will be sacked and Stoke City are unlikely to be offering any solace in their Boxing Day clash on Saturday (2.45pm).
While another Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, begins the job of rebuilding Premier League champions Chelsea’s season at home to Watford, Van Gaal enters the hectic holiday schedule with his prospects about as bright as a Christmas turkey.
After consecutive 2-1 defeats by relegation candidates Bournemouth and Norwich City dropped United out of the top four, hot on the heels of their Champions League exit, Van Gaal can ill afford another defeat at Stoke.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes, a former United great, joined the debate about United’s woes when he said Van Gaal’s assistant Ryan Giggs had an “outstanding chance” of taking the Old Trafford hot seat should Van Gaal depart.
Hughes has warned his players they will need to reach the level they achieved in outclassing Manchester City this month to withstand any United backlash.
“I have been asked whether this is a good time to play United but I am always wary of that because these type of clubs more often than not bounce back emphatically,” he said.
“They will be desperate to get back on track at the weekend. Manchester United know themselves that they are in a period of transition and are in a different cycle.
“But we are fully aware as to how difficult a challenge they will pose to us on Boxing Day.”
Hiddink will hope to carry on where he left off when he returns to the Stamford Bridge dugout for the first time in six-and-a-half years on Saturday (5pm).
Surprise leaders Leicester City, meanwhile, will just try to carry on as they have done all season, when they visit Liverpool (5pm) at the start of Britain’s annual Christmas feast of football that will see 30 Premier league games in nine days.
Hiddink eschewed the chance of a relaxing holiday, returning to help Chelsea out of a pickle after a calamitous start to the Premier League season which resulted in Jose Mourinho’s sacking.
When he took on that challenge in 2009 after Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure, he lost only one of his 22 matches in charge and signed off triumphantly at Wembley Stadium with an FA Cup final victory over Everton.
His job looks tougher this time with Chelsea in 15th place, having lost nine of their opening 17 games.
“The league is very strong, especially this year,” Hiddink said at his Wednesday news conference. “Any team can kill another team. It’s changed (since 2009) it’s very competitive now.”
Watford crushed Liverpool 3-0 last weekend to move to within a point of the Champions League places, while Leicester showed no signs of faltering as they beat Everton at Goodison Park.
Such is Leicester’s progress that few would be surprised if they won on Merseyside for the second week running, especially with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez proving unstoppable with 28 goals between them so far.
Leicester clinched the Christmas number one spot, a year after propping up the table at the same period, but Italian manager Claudio Ranieri says his side, who have scored in every game to stand two points clear of second-placed Arsenal, cannot afford to look down.
“It’s like a climber. If you look below, ‘Ah, my God!’” Ranieri, whose side face Manchester City at home three days after Liverpool, said this week.
Arsenal begin their Christmas fixtures away at Southampton (9.45pm) before a home match against Bournemouth while third-placed Manchester City host Sunderland (5pm) and fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur welcome Norwich (5pm).