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West Brom v Manchester United: Van Gaal calls for belief in top-four charge

Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal called on his squad to believe that they can reach the Premier League top four as they look to make it five straight victories in all competitions when they face West Brom on Sunday.

Back-to-back league wins over Arsenal and Watford – combined with Manchester City’s run of three consecutive top-flight losses – have catapulted United back into the race for a Champions League spot that previously appeared to be out of reach.

Van Gaal’s team are now level on points with fourth-placed City having played one game more and also sit within four points of Arsene Wenger’s struggling Gunners in third.

But despite the recent turnaround, a victory is not a formality – West Brom have lost just two of the last six league matches against United, who have only won one of their previous seven top-flight away matches.

United are nine unbeaten at The Hawthorns, though, which is the only time a Premier League team has gone nine or more away games against one opponent at the same venue without suffering a loss.

“When you see that we close the gap on the top four a little bit then your belief shall raise,” said Van Gaal.

“I am talking to my players and saying that they need to believe in that. I believe in that, but they need to believe in it as well.

“A title is [worth] more than fourth. But the Champions League is also our aim and we get that by winning the Europa League or finishing fourth.

“We have to beat West Bromwich Albion and that will not be easy. Last year we played there and drew, so it is not an easy opponent and at home we also lost against them. 

“But we won at home this season and we hope to also win on Sunday.”

That 2-0 win came in November for United, whose supporters are hoping Chris Smalling (shoulder) will be passed fit to play, while Van Gaal is reluctant to risk Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia until they have played for the Under-21 side first, although they are in contention if required.

West Brom, meanwhile, are without Jonny Evans (hamstring) against his former club, as well as Chris Brunt (knee), James Morrison (hamstring) and Callum McManaman (foot).

Tony Pulis’ hosts are on a good run having lost just twice in their last 10 league outings, a streak that has given them a 12-point cushion over the bottom three as they sit in 13th position.

“If we can get to 40 points in the next few games [West Brom have 36], we will then try to get more points than the club has ever got in this league,” said Pulis.

“They [United] are a good side, they have got some good players. We know it will be a tough game, they have had a great result again on Wednesday so they will come full of confidence.

“It is just making sure the players enjoy the challenge. The big thing is to enjoy it. The last three league games, we have won at Everton, beaten Crystal Palace and then had a good draw at Leicester.

“The last two games, Leicester and Palace, have been full of goals as well so it keeps everybody quiet.”

Key Opta stats:

– United named their fourth-youngest starting XI in Premier League history in their last game against Watford (23 years, 222 days old on average).
– In May 2013, this fixture saw the highest scoring draw in Premier League history when the two sides drew 5-5 in Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge.
– West Brom have kept just one clean sheet in their 19 Premier League games against the Red Devils.
– Pulis has lost 11 of his 13 Premier League games against Manchester United (W1 D1).

Fri 4 Mar, 2016
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