While the Champions League is a near-impossibility mathematically, Manchester United still has plenty at stake against Bournemouth on Tuesday at Old Trafford, where the teams will play their rescheduled season finale.
Championship Sunday usually means all 20 Premier League play 10 simultaneous matches, but that wasn't the case this past weekend. Sunday's match had to be postponed after a suspicious package was found in the stands approximately a half-hour before kickoff. Initially, the north and west stands of the stadium were evacuated, and after an original decision to delay the kickoff 45 minutes, Manchester police advised it would be better to postpone the match.
"We don't make these decisions lightly and we have done this today to ensure the safety of all those attending," Assistant Chief Constable John O'Hare said in a statement. "I am thankful for everyone's support and assistance and we will continue to provide updates on this matter as soon as they become available."
The British army sent a bomb disposal unit to the grounds and performed a controlled explosion of the package, which was later determined to be "incredibly lifelike" but also not a "viable device." No one had taken responsibility for the threat, though Home Secretary Theresa May told lawmakers in the House of Commons that the domestic intelligence agency MI5 had decided to raise its threat level of an IRA attack in Britain to ''substantial,'' the third-highest level on Wednesday.
This was the first time a Premier League match had been postponed due to a bomb threat, though a November match between Germany and the Netherlands had been canceled due to one. No explosives were found at that venue.
Since the other matches went on, Manchester United (18-9-10) learned it was all but impossible to overtake their eternal rivals Manchester City for fourth to claim the final Champions League spot after they posted a 1-1 draw at Swansea City. The result left United three points behind the Citizens and in need of a victory by 19 goals to better Man City's superior goal difference.
The FA rescheduled the match for Tuesday, with time having some urgency since Manchester United play Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium next Saturday in the FA Cup final. The Red Devils enter this match sixth on 63 points and have two paths to the Europa League, but since they trail Southampton on goal difference, a loss to Bournemouth (11-9-17) would leave them needing to win the FA Cup to qualify for the Europa League.
Manchester United had played their trump card on Manchester City for that Champions League spot - their match in hand at West Ham United last Tuesday - but lost 3-2 by conceding goals on set pieces to Michail Antonio and Winston Reid in the final quarter-hour.
"The circumstances before the match were unusual and that will be an influence but I'm not looking for excuses," van Gaal said. "When you are 2-1 ahead with 20 minutes to play you have to make the ball big and keep the ball better. We changed the match in our favour, in a fantastic way. Then you lose because of the set plays."
Still, settling for the Europa League was not why van Gaal was brought on board. And given the precedent of sacking David Moyes once United were assured of not reaching the Champions League, it's hard to imagine the Dutchman being able to complete his three-year contract should the Red Devils finish fifth or worse as the rumours of Jose Mourinho taking over continue to persist.
Those sentiments were exacerbated Tuesday after United lost out to Bayern Munich on the signing of 18-year-old Benfica midfielder Renato Sanches for £27.6 million plus incentives. The Portuguese starlet is the type of box-to-box player desperately needed to control the middle of the park and was United's primary target for the upcoming transfer window.
Van Gaal has ruled out Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Adnan Januzaj for this match through injuries, while midfielder Marouane Fellaini - sorely missed in defending set pieces - will miss this match through suspension.
As the United saga ebbs and flows, Bournemouth have a chance to finish the season on a high note with an eye to the future. Currently 16th in the table on 42 points, the Cherries avoided the relegation scrap for most of the season and could finish as high 14th with a victory or a draw, climbing over West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace.
Bournemouth avoided a fourth straight loss May 7, scrambling to draw West Bromwich Albion 1-1 on a goal by Matthew Ritchie eight minutes from time. But with a chance to become the first promoted side in the Premier League era to do the double over United - the Cherries won 2-1 in December - and play spoiler to their Champions League hopes, manager Eddie Howe knows he won't have to say much to get his team fired up.
"It would mean everything to do the double over them," Howe told the team's official website. "Whenever you play Manchester United it's a historic occasion, so I am sure the players will be chomping at the bit to get out there.
"It's nice to be involved in games that mean something. We are a competitive team and relish that side of it, so it's a game we are all really looking forward to."
In the reverse fixture, Junior Stanislas staked Bournemouth to an early lead with an Olimpico as the wind whipped his in-swinging corner over David De Gea's outstretched hand. After Fellaini pulled United level later in the first half, King met a corner by Ritchie on 54 minutes for the match-winner.