It’s the greatest fixture in the English footballing calendar reduced to the sorriest of stages.
By rights, Liverpool should play Manchester United in the Champions League even if neither are champions. Manchester United should host Liverpool with the world to play for rather than Europe’s runners up trophy. Liverpool and Manchester United should be playing in League deciders rather than scrabbling in the bowels of the Europa League. As The Blow Monkeys once observed, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The two sides have never met in European competition before. The closest was in 2008 when Chelsea stood in the way of a Liverpool-United final and ended up on a plane to Moscow to take the Anfield club’s place. Other than that – nothing. There have been two FA Cup finals (1977 and 1996) which both went to United and a couple of League Cup finals (both to Liverpool) but this is the first time that a European anthem will sound before kick-off. That all changes on Thursday, but what a shame it is in the Europa League.
It’s an odd competition. Its parent, the UEFA Cup, was much simpler affair with its two legged rounds. Liverpool won the old competition three times while United, possibly due the near constant appearances in the Champions League, have failed to trouble the scorers. Fortunately, neither club seemed too interested in the UEFA Cup’s predecessor, the Inter-Cities Fair Cup –a truly bizarre tournament which used to house such inane fixtures as Birmingham City v Barcelona. Seriously. That was once the final.
The current format is overlong and cumbersome, relying on a league system followed a knockout competition once the detritus of the Champions League groups have been added. It’s great if you win it and the ideal entry level competition for clubs who rarely play European fixtures, but it’s a bit of an embarrassment if you’re used to loftier company.
But, here’s the thing. Liverpool and United fans won’t give a toss.
They could play these games under the guise of the Premier Inn Cup and it would still sell out. If Juan Mata had a kick about with Jose Enrique with a garage door as a goal the public would head there in droves and someone would still televise it. If they brought back the Watney Cup (ask your Grandad) there’s no way it would go to general sale. Liverpool v Manchester United matters regardless of the context.
I asked a friend how important these games were in terms of “bragging rights”? She told me that she even would celebrate winning the toss like Marco Tardelli.
You can call this competition whatever you like. You can change its format, you can devalue it to the point of pantomime, but Liverpool v Manchester United matters.
Both sides are in unenviable positions. Jurgen Klopp’s team have recorded three League wins in a row for the first time under his guidance, but are still prone to some shocking performances. The 3-0 collapse at Watford marks their nadir though the league defeats to West Ham come close. For their part, United come into the game with their first ever Premier League defeat at the Hawthorns fresh in their minds, and that was just one in a series of beige performances under the frankly bizarre Luis Van Gaal. Both are capable of strong victories (Liverpool’s wins at Chelsea and City, United’s demolition of Arsenal with a striker who is little more than a child) but the days of playing at the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu have gone. In the last round they faced Augsburg and Midtjylland and even struggled there.
Both have lost eight league games already this season – something unthinkable in their pomp. In terms of quality, this is not the fixture it once was. Don’t bother telling the fans that though.
The rivalry is based on history. While Manchester boasted its cotton trade and industrial modernity, Liverpool drew its wealth from the finest and busiest port in the world. When football came along they established themselves as the two North West powerhouses and went head to head – firstly for regional dominance and then national. With eight European Cups between them to London’s one, they soon established themselves in Europe. Both created dynasties. Liverpool owned the 1970s and 80s while United took the next two decades. Both are now fighting to return to their proper place in the game, ideally at the cost of the other.
There’s been a certain amount of sanitisation in football since Sky arrived with their cheerleaders and global appeal. While overseas fans can express a dislike of their adopted enemies it cannot touch the passion and antipathy of the match-going Liverpool or United fan. Let’s be clear here. This is no banterish office discussion with accompanied bragging rights. These fans despise each other. The mid 80s was particularly strong in its hatred, culminating in the 1985 FA Cup semi-finals at Goodison Park and Maine Road. Liverpool had just reached the European Cup final while United still struggled in the League and had just exited the UEFA Cup to Hungarian side Videoton. Liverpool were keener than ever to reach Wembley as Everton were waiting for them and this was an ideal chance to keep the neighbours quiet. United –who regularly beat Liverpool despite twenty-six years without the League title – had other ideas.
United won the replay 2-1 but no one who was there that day will forget the atmosphere. A friend described it as the most violent he had ever encountered in thirty years of match-going. The air was heavy with a sense of outright war and getting to and from the ground wasn’t a welcoming thought. This made Galatasary v Fenerbache look like It’s A Royal Knockout. The Goodison encounter in particular was especially fraught.
Those days have gone now. The passion remains even if the success has not.
What do we expect in these two games? Lots of chances? Controversy? 3-3 draws? Unlikely. Van Gaal likes to play with caution against strong teams rather than blowing them away through the usual United fashion of quick wide play. Klopp has instilled a new element of stamina with his players so maybe one goal and one goal only will settle the tie. Again, the fans won’t care. This will just be three hours of blood and guts and shouting at the people in the opposite stand.
The message from the fans will be simple. Just win. Do anything to win. Do absolutely everything. Losing is unthinkable. Absolutely unthinkable. These games matter far more than the competition. They always will.