What is arguably the tastiest fixture of the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 is also a reflection of how far the erstwhile greats of English football have fallen.
Between them, Manchester United and Liverpool boast of 38 English top-flight titles and 8 European Cups. They have been the doyens of English football for many generations and enjoy a fierce, storied rivalry that brings out the best and the worst in their players and supporters.
While both clubs have now been upstaged by more recent challengers to their English dominance, including Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and in this season, Leicester City, the derby between these two clubs is still billed as one of the biggest fixtures in the English top flight. So it is a sense of despondency that surrounds the fact that these two clubs meet in the second tier of European competition and not the Champions League itself.
The sense of occasion is heightened by the fact that, as vocalised by both managers, winning the Europa League is probably the best chance either club has of playing Champions League football next season. As such, it is only befitting that they must overcome a club that has historically been their biggest rival.
Louis van Gaal v Jurgen Klopp
Louis van Gaal has been a man under fire this season. At the start of this campaign, he confidently proclaimed that he would take his Manchester United team to Champions League glory either this season or the next, because “he had done it everywhere else”. Almost ten months have passed since that statement, and after an unceremonious exit from the Champions League and a less-than-perfect showing in the domestic league, Van Gaal has obviously realigned his goals for the rest of the season.
The Dutchman has drawn the ire of spectators for the team’s lacklustre brand of football that is a polar opposite to the trademark aggressive style that Manchester United sides have traditionally adopted. Add to it a long list of injuries to key personnel, and United seem to be getting the short end of the stick far too often this season.
The club did, however, go on a recent winning spree that sparked whispers of a resurgence and a final push for a top 4 finish, but their four-match winning streak was halted abruptly with a defeat away from home at West Brom on Sunday. The future is not all bleak for United though, especially when it comes to playing Liverpool, whom the Red Devils have beaten in all four competitive fixtures since Louis van Gaal took over at the club.
While they will still be missing the services of skipper Wayne Rooney through injury, there is also some good news, with rumours of long-term absentee Bastian Schweinsteiger returning to fitness. However, it remains to be seen whether he is fit to start the game and play the full 90 minutes.
Jesse Lingard, who picked up a booking in the home leg against Midtjylland, will have to sit out this leg against Liverpool through suspension. However, Manchester United had rested both Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin at the weekend, possibly to save them for the Liverpool fixture. The former has, in fact, been a revelation in Europe, and played a starring role in the thrashing of the Red Devil’s Danish opponents in the previous round.
Juan Mata’s one-match suspension because of his red card against West Brom applies only for domestic competitions, so the Spaniard too will be available for selection against Liverpool in the Europa League fixture.
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Jurgen Klopp took over at Anfield amidst much fanfare and immediately followed it up with a string of inspired performances, including wins over Chelsea and Manchester City. However, that run of unbeaten games ended soon, and Liverpool returned to their old erratic ways that fans have grown accustomed to.
That said, if any club is going into this fixture with momentum on its side, it has to be Liverpool. After their loss to Manchester City on penalties in the Capital One Cup final, the Merseyside club bounced back quickly to defeat the same opposition in their league fixture only three days later.
While Manchester United failed to win their weekend league fixture after being reduced to 10 men, Liverpool came from behind to beat Crystal Palace with similar odds. Of course, Klopp needs to ensure that neither he nor his side fixate too much on United’s spate of recent losses.
James Milner’s red card against Palace — like Mata’s for United — will not be operational in Europe, and that should keep the Englishman in the Liverpool starting lineup. Klopp would look to test the potentially inexperienced Manchester United side by throwing Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge together at them.
Coutinho came on for the last 30 minutes against Palace, while Sturridge was an unused sub in the game. Sturridge’s return will, however, mean putting Divock Origi next to Christian Benteke on the bench.
Key Player battles
Roberto Firmino vs Chris Smalling
Roberto Firmino has been the focal point of the attack this year, scoring eight goals in his last eight league games. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling has played a key role in Manchester United’s strong defensive record this season. This battle could be key in determining the outcome of the game.
As a defender, Smalling seems to be developing in the mould of Rio Ferdinand, as he depends more on his positional sense and his ability to read the game in order to kill threats before they become too serious. While he does chase down the odd long ball over the top, Firmino definitely has more in the tank when it comes to speed, and in a flat out sprint, the Brazilian would leave the England international for dead. It is therefore critical for Smalling to be on the very top of his game to make sure that Firmino doesn’t get a one v one situation with David de Gea.
Juan Mata vs Philippe Coutinho
In Wayne Rooney’s absence, Juan Mata is the chief playmaker in the Manchester United lineup, and he has European experience in the bank, having won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012. Being the chief playmaker, however, would pit him directly against Coutinho, who has been on an upward curve all season. Not only does he have a wide array of passes at his disposal, but also tracks back to put in a defensive shift when needed. The Brazilian also has the tendency to pop up in the opponent’s box to make a nuisance of himself from set plays.
Mata, on the other hand, is weaker in defence, and it was his defensive ineptitude and poor decision-making that earned him his first ever professional red card against West Brom. With the history of red cards and bookings that this derby has, Mata would need to be on top of his game while avoiding similar errors of judgement.
James Milner vs Bastian Schweinsteiger
This is the classic deep-sitting midfielder battle. Both these players will operate in more of a controlling role. While Schweinsteiger depends on experience and skill to control the direction and tempo of the game, Milner puts his immense tenacity to work to always give more than 100% on the field, regardless of his given position.
This tenacity, especially when his team lose possession, makes Milner pretty invaluable in the middle of the park, especially against a club like Manchester United, who are currently favouring a playing style that heavily depends on keeping possession.
Schweinsteiger is returning from injury and may not be at full potential just yet. As such, if Milner can win his take-ons and knock the big German off the ball often, it could prove highly problematic for Van Gaal’s men, since their gameplay depends so much on controlling the ball in the middle of the park.
Even if Van Gaal chooses to start Michael Carrick ahead of Schweinsteiger, the home side will have a problem on their hands in the form of Milner as he is capable of single-handedly disrupting their passing game and tempo.
- Manchester United have actually looked a more attacking side since the seniors got injured and forced Van Gaal to field the youngsters. In the match against Midtjylland, there were glimpses of the exciting, counter-attacking Red Devils of yore.
- Van Gaal’s side must hold some mental advantage over Liverpool by virtue of having beaten them in all four of their previous competitive encounters.
- In general, Manchester United looked like a side lacking a game plan this season. More often than not, players are shifting the ball sideways or backwards and the buildup is so slow that it gives sufficient time for opponents to get all their men behind the ball.
- Even with the ball in or near the box, Manchester United players have appeared reluctant to pull the trigger. It often feels that they have managerial instructions to not take a shot on goal unless they are completely sure of scoring. This profligacy in front of goal has cost them points and results throughout the season.
- Liverpool have a midfield and attacking lineup that is more coherent and experienced compared to Manchester United’s. Most importantly, their players have played together much more often compared to their arch rivals, who seem to be changing their starting combinations every few games.
- Players like Coutinho, Firmino, Benteke and Milner provide a physical presence in the box from set pieces, something United have been vulnerable to throughout this season.
- The Reds have underperformed this season against Manchester United, losing twice to their rivals. While it may not be material to the actual game, it cannot be denied that football does have a sizeable mental element to it as well.
- Liverpool have been just as wasteful — if not more so — compared to the Red Devils in front of goal. They do all the hard work of getting the ball in the box, only to smash the final finish wide.