Championship Sunday arrived this weekend with the Premier League title already clinched, but a heated battle to avoid the relegation zone for teams, who struggled this season. Manchester United faced Hull City, a team who needed victory and a Newcastle loss in order to stay in the Premier League next season. United already solidified their fourth place finish, an improvement from their previous season under David Moyes but still short of title challenging expectations.
Louis Van Gaal had some injuries to consider this week as he selected his starting XI. At goalkeeper, he had to start Victor Valdés in David De Gea's place due to an injury from last week's match. Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo started in the backline for the second week in a row. In midfield, Van Gaal deployed Ashley Young in a central attacking midfield role, while Marouane Fellaini was benched as a substitute. Ángel Di María was granted a start in this final match in Young's usual position alongside holding midfielders, Ander Herrera and Daley Blind, and right midfielder, Juan Mata. Wayne Rooney started at lone striker. Radamel Falcao was unavailable for the match due to injury, all part of an unceremonious exit from a rather forgettable, uneventful loan spell at United.
United settled into their game, showing their prowess over the nearly relegated Hull City side. Early in the match, Rooney nearly capitalized on an early chance. Marcos Rojo, attacking on the left wing, played a layoff pass to Rooney, who controlled the pass with his first touch. His second touch produced a well-struck shot that skimmed the crossbar, nearly hitting his target. Hull City had a ravenous desperation about their approach, creating near chances that only needed a finishing touch or a better setup pass. Victor Valdés nearly gifted Hull a goal, when he fumbled a cross within his reach. A Hull player managed to be offside on the play nullifying the goal that they scored following Valdés' mistake. The United keeper's next involvement in the game would do very well to reassure the fans after the initial error. Robby Brady, a former United prospect, whipped in a cross to the back post finding his leaping teammate, Ahmed Elmohamady, who placed a shot in the bottom corner. Valdés sprung into action to produce a highlight worthy save, keeping the scores level at 0-0. On the resulting corner, there was more menace to the United goal, as they were saved by their offside trap putting a potential goal scorer offside.
About halfway through the first half, an injury to Di María prompted an early substitution. Adnan Januzaj replaced the Argentine winger, hoping to improve on his 2015 campaign during which he has languished in obscurity without significant playing time.
The second half produced even more nervous moments for United's defense. Valdés attempted and failed to punch out a header towards the 6-yard box on a Hull City free kick. In the resulting skirmish, the United goalkeeper was bailed out by the defensive efforts of Valencia, who blocked the ball from the net, and Blind, who cleared the ball off the goal line. On top of these worrisome plays in the United defensive third, United were reduced to ten men on a foolish challenge from Marouane Fellaini demanded extensive treatment. Fellaini's last action of the season leaves a lot desired as he only managed 18 minutes of play as a substitute.
In the 91st minute, the first of seven minutes of extra time, United earned a free kick just outside of Hull City's 18-yard box, well within Rooney's striking range. Rooney curled a shot over the wall, bound for goal, but it was saved by Hull City's keeper for a corner kick. In the final minutes of the extra time, neither team was capable of the late game heroics required to grab victory in the match as United and Hull finished deadlocked at 0-0.
United finished their 2015 season not in their usual victorious style, but fans should not let the final result diminish the importance of their successes this year, namely their return to the top of the table. A fourth place finish is surely not a noteworthy finish for one of the most successful clubs in European football, but it does indicate a great deal of progress since their woeful season under David Moyes. Though, United have a great deal more progress to make as they vie for success in the Champions League, as well as title contention in the Premier League.
Improvements must be made at nearly every position, whether it be finding a starting player to fit the role, or an additional player that can step into the role should injuries, fitness, or poor form demand it. Van Gaal's work in the transfer market, signing Memphis Depay, proves that the Dutch manager is more than up to the task in bringing marquis talent to the Red Devils, but still, more work needs to be done to round out the side. LVG has set his eyes on top-drawer talents in the holding midfield role, as he targets Borussia Dortmund's Ilkay Gundogan and Bayern Munich's Sebastien Schweinsteiger.
Radamel Falcao returns to Monaco after a vastly unsuccessful loan spell in which the Colombian striker scored only 4 goals in 26 appearances. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez returns from his disappointing loan spell at Real Madrid as the Mexican striker struggled to make it into the starting side. It is widely believed that he will find himself at another club this season still.
As far as Louis Van Gaal, next season has already begun as he looks to secure the players necessary for a title challenge next season. The summer transfer window (opening in June) is pivotal to the team's success in attaining their goals of Premier League title contention and advancement in the Champions League. United play their next match on Friday, July 17th at 11:00pm, a friendly against Club America at CenturyLink that kicks off the International Champions Cup.
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