Louis van Gaal Reaches Defining Period as Manchester United Prepare for Three Weeks of Showdowns

It is over the next three weeks that we can only begin to cast true judgement over this current United team's credentials as potential champions, and whether or not they can be a force in European football once again.

It's important to exercise restraint when reflecting on Manchester United's start to the season, a start which has seen them end a Premier League round of fixtures at the summit of the league table for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

In their opening seven league games, United haven't faced one of the Premier League's heavyweights and have lost to Swansea City. They may have picked up obligatory wins against Tottenham and Aston Villa, but also looked well short of the required standard in the scoreless draw against Newcastle United and the 3-2 victory over Southampton reinforced the idea that Van Gaal's defensive unit is far from impenetrable.

However, it is over the next three weeks that we can only begin to cast true judgement over this current United team's credentials as potential champions, and whether or not they can be a force in European football once again.

If United find themselves top of the table after challenging encounters with Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City, then we can seriously start entertaining the possibility that they will reign supreme in English football once again.

But it's going to be a rough ride. Although the explosion of Anthony Martial on to the scene has been comforting after the lavish sum of money splashed to acquire his services and the solid start made to life at Old Trafford for Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay has reassured fans that investment in the summer was shrewd, they will be thrown into the Premier League at its most unforgiving in the following few weeks.

The problem remains Wayne Rooney. Yes, he may have scored in his last two games against Ipswich and Sunderland, but the fact remains; he's not playing well. His goal against Sunderland was a poacher's finish after Martial had done most of the hard work, which failed to disguise another laboured performance from the United captain.

Van Gaal will know that Memphis and Martial are 21 and 19 respectively, which means that showing the kind of consistency you expect from Rooney is merely not feasible, despite their obvious talents. After discarding Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez in the summer, Van Gaal needs Rooney to rediscover that hunger and desire that has propelled him to within touching distance of becoming the club's all-time leading goalscorer.

The defining period starts on Wednesday night, when Wolfsburg come to Old Trafford in an attempt to further disrupt United's return to the Champions League. What was supposed to be a triumphant return in Eindhoven ended in a defeat, made all the more bitter by a season-ending injury to Luke Shaw. Drop points once again and Van Gaal's will find himself under intense pressure to qualify from the group stages - being eliminated at the first hurtle has always been considered unthinkable to United fans.

Wolfsburg may have been depleted by the summer exits of Kevin De Bruyne and Ivan Perisic, but 12 points from seven games in the Bundesliga as well as an opening Group B victory against CSKA Moscow show a side that can cause United more than a few headaches on Wednesday night.

Whatever happens against the Germans, United must recuperate swiftly though as a daunting trip to the Emirates awaits them next in the league. Arsenal are fresh off ripping previously unbeaten Leicester to shreds - which ominously included Alexis Sanchez exploding back into life with a tremendous hat-trick - and will fancy their chances of exploiting United's vulnerabilities at the back. With Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott all scoring at the weekend, Van Gaal must execute all his tactical nous in keeping the Gunners quiet.

There certainly won't be a calm after the storm though, as Van Gaal must ready his troops for another potentially bruising encounter with Everton. Goodison Park was the scene of humiliation for Van Gaal in April as the Toffees ran our comfortable 3-0 winners, mirroring the insipid performance 12 months earlier which spelled the end to David Moyes' time in charge at United.

While it's true that Van Gaal has partly extinguished some of the scars from his predecessors reign, the heavy recruitment drive over the past two summers means the pressure to succeed is far greater than Moyes. He won't be particularly excited about the prospect of facing Manchester City either, despite their recent capitulation at the hands of West Ham and Tottenham.

Expect a blood and thunder Manchester derby and if Van Gaal emerges from the end of October with his head held high and still occupying top spot in the league, United fans can then truly start to dream about a title once again.

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