More Than Europa League Progress On The Line As Manchester United And Liverpool Square Up Again

By Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven)
There was a moment during Liverpool’s win over Manchester United last week which provided the perfect synopsis of the contest. With the two sets of players lined up before kick off the Europa League anthem was cut short, You’ll Never Walk Alone blaring over the PA system instead. The competition, no matter what it may be, matters little when these two rivals meet. No additional context is needed.
Remarkably, last week’s clash marked the first time Liverpool and Man Utd had met in European competition, with the Reds emerging with a comprehensive 2-0 victory. It could - and perhaps should - have been a bigger margin of triumph for Jurgen Klopp’s side, given their level of dominance. They could have killed the tie in the first leg.
As it is, Manchester United still have a chance. The recent standard of their performances suggest overturning such a deficit might be beyond them, but nonetheless, 2-0 is not an unassailable lead. Therein lies the opportunity for Louis Van Gaal’s side. A comeback victory against their biggest rivals could be enough to spark their season into life for the final few months of the campaign. It could be a turning point.
The Europa League itself is sidelined in all of this. United aren’t so much targeting a place in May’s final in Basel, but a statement. They need to put down a marker if they are to somehow save their season, and while qualification for the Champions League through the second tier tournament would certainly accomplish that a triumph over Liverpool from two goals down would actually be more of a symbolic moment for Van Gaal and his team.
“Tomorrow we only have to think we have to beat Liverpool – and beat them 2-0 not 3-0 because we can do it in extra time,” Van Gaal explained earlier this week. “We can do it 2-0 and then we have a chance to reach the next round. You know we have scored goals within three or four minutes this season so it is possible.”
Van Gaal says his United team owe their supporters a big performance, and he’s right. Until Wednesday tickets for Thursday’s clash with Liverpool were still readily available, with the club selling them off in batches of four for a discount price. It’s fair to surmise that United’s fans aren’t expecting much from their team in the second leg.
Of course, this will suit Liverpool. A muted Old Trafford is to their obvious benefit, although Klopp has been keen to stress that the dynamic of the match will set the tone inside the stadium. Indeed, an early Liverpool goal - or a Liverpool goal at any point of the match - could be enough to silence the home support, who have had very little to shout about in recent times.
“We will decide how good the atmosphere here is with our performance,” Klopp said ahead of the second leg. “How many Liverpool fans will be there? 3,000. That's enough. That's a really good number. If they give their best I am sure we will take this and show it in our performance.
“It's not the Man United crowd against the Liverpool crowd. It's the two teams against each other. The performance is always one reason for the atmosphere. If we do our best it will be difficult for Man United to enjoy the game.”
Traditionally, these matches between Liverpool and Man Utd are tight affairs. A single goal is usually enough to decide them, but in this case a single goal will mean nothing in the wider sense of the contest. This game is slightly different, even if the Europa League is only an improvised priority for both sides.
For United, the stakes are seemingly higher. There is a common agreement that Liverpool under Klopp remains a work-in-progress, but for Van Gaal tangible success is needed to validate his two seasons in charge. They don’t just need a positive result to make the next round of the competition, but to show that things aren’t so bad after all.