Those two football powerhouses from the North West of England regard Europe’s premier competition as their natural habitat. However, tonight the pair will both line up in the Europa League as a mark of their current struggles.
When Liverpool dropped down into the Europa League in the 2009/10 season, they were wittily serenaded by United fans with the song, ‘Thursday nights, Channel Five.’ The idea was they were playing on a night no-one associates with football, in a competition that no-one loves and on a TV channel no-one admits to watching. The night is the same, but now the TV channel has changed to BT Sport (for those of you who don’t follow this competition avidly). But a fair question to assess is whether the value of the Europa League has been enhanced.
That is because winning this competition now carries a passage straight into the group stages of the following season’s Champions League. And that is something that neither Liverpool nor Manchester United can turn down. Last year, Sevilla finished fifth in La Liga but won the Europa League (or UEFA Cup as it was) for the fourth time in ten seasons and took their place alongside four other Spanish clubs in this year’s Champions League. Liverpool and United would have to show the type of form that has eluded them all campaign to make the top four spots in the Premier League, so is coming through a knockout competition of potentially nine matches a more realistic aim?
They will both be favourites to progress through their first assignments. United are in Denmark to face FC Midtjylland, a small club from the north of the country whose ground can only 11,000, with spectators being charged £71 for the privilege (although that price must be based on United’s history rather than the entertainment offered this season). Liverpool are in Bavaria to take on FC Augsburg, a team in the lower reaches of the Bundesliga, without a win in 2016. The German side are enjoying their first season in Europe and their website describes tonight’s game as ‘the biggest match in the club’s history’. It’s almost impossible to imagine two clubs with such little pedigree on this stage troubling Liverpool and United. But the inference is clear – this is not the glamour of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Champions League.
When United fell down into the Europa League after defeat away to Wolfsburg in December, manager Louis van Gaal talked up the prestige of this competition and remembered his success with Ajax in 1992. But there was no stigma attached back then, and only Champions were in the European Cup. When Sir Alex Ferguson fell into this competition in 2012, there was a Premier League title race with Manchester City to concentrate the mind. That was the priority and people swiftly forget the three defeats in four games against Ajax and Athletic Bilbao during United’s Thursday night experience. Defeat to the Danes would only heap more embarrassment on van Gaal after the ongoing struggles of the last few months.
Despite the drawbacks the Europa League now has, this remains a competition United have never won, and the route back into the Champions League would be very welcome for the club, the players, the fans and whoever might be the manager at Old Trafford next season. But is it fashionable for a club of United’s stature to publicly state they want to win the Europa League? Could that become a priority over the Premier League in the coming weeks if a top-four finish looks increasingly unlikely and they are in the quarter-finals and semi-finals? The reality is that it might have to become the priority.
For Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, the scenario is more straight-forward. A top-four finish in the league is way off, and almost out of the question. They are currently 12 points and four places behind fourth placed Manchester City with only 12 matches left. Klopp has already jettisoned one competition – the FA Cup, and he will not play any sides in the Europa League as weak as those he put out for the matches with Exeter and West Ham. Coming through four two-legged ties and winning the final in Basel in May would create fabulous memories at Anfield and engender a feel-good factor around the club. It would show that Klopp and Liverpool were going places and it could attract players in the summer on the back of it. Remember the 2001 UEFA Cup final and the Reds’ 5-4 victory over Alaves. It was one of the great games of football, and following on from beating Roma and Barcelona along the way made for a memorable European campaign.
Liverpool and United could even meet in this competition from the next round onwards. They have still never met in European football, so imagine if for two weeks, Thursday night was the biggest night in English football as Liverpool and United locked horns. There would be no excuses then. The bitter rivalry of the two clubs would ensure a two-legged encounter would be given the utmost importance. Winning would be OK, but eliminating the other team would be much, much sweeter.
However, plenty of other teams might fancy lifting this cup in Switzerland on May 18, too. Tottenham, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund are all sitting second in their respective leagues. Sevilla have dropped back from the Champions League into their natural environment, where they fear nobody. Portuguese sides like Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto will feel confident of doing well and have done in the recent past. Athletic Bilbao enjoyed a run to the final four years ago and dream of European success, similarly Marseille. It could even provide salvation for Gary Neville amid his troubles in charge of Valencia.
These are all famous clubs, who would be worthy of Champions League football next season. Yet, none of them are Liverpool and Manchester United. Now we are about to find out if Klopp and van Gaal want an exciting adventure in the Europa League or would prefer to slip out of the back door before no-one notices.
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