Longtime rivals Manchester United and Liverpool look to salvage their disappointing Premier League campaigns in Thursday’s Round-of-16 Europa League first leg at Anfield. The matchup marks the first time the two storied sides will clash in a major European tournament.
With United in sixth place and Liverpool seventh in the Premier League, the once mighty titans of English football haven’t enjoyed routine success in their league but can regain some respectability by extending their runs abroad.
United defender Daley Blind issued a challenge to his teammates claiming they "have to show that we want it more." Blind may have some help after a rash of injuries, with Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia back in full training and perhaps available.
For Liverpool, that requires finally besting United this term. The Red Devils pulled off a 3-1 victory at Old Trafford in Premier League play and then claimed a 1-0 win on Liverpool’s grounds. For the Reds it didn’t seem to matter whether it was recently sacked Brendan Rodgers or new manager Jurgen Klopp stalking the sidelines.
According to defender Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool must play aggressively from the outset and build momentum in the first leg so as to carry it into the second.
“We’ve learned to just keep fighting to the end,” Clyne told reporters Tuesday. “We know we can create chances and if we’re solid in defense we can stop their attack. Hopefully, we can get the goals and get a good result going into the second leg it will help us push through to the next round.”
Liverpool advanced after James Milner’s fifth-minute penalty strike proved the difference against Augsburg two weeks ago 1-0 on aggregate. The Reds enter the tournament’s last-16 for the first time since 2011, and hope to equal or better 2010’s run to the semifinals.
The Red Devils have a more recent history in Europa League, having attained a last-16 spot just three years ago. United failed to put together an inspired effort in Champions League group play, and against weak competition. A strong run in Europa League could help strengthen the club's confidence.
Louis van Gaal’s side trounced Danish club Midtjylland 6-3 on aggregate. Liverpool struggled to just a 1-0 aggregate win over Augsburg. In seven Europa League matches, Liverpool scored a total of just six goals.
The second leg in on March 17 at Old Trafford.
Prediction: United have been plagued by injuries with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw still sidelined. But newcomer Marcus Rashford has been a boon for the Red Devils attack, while Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay are still capable of providing Van Gaal with some much-needed scoring. The Merseysiders could use defensive midfielder Lucas, who is out until the middle of April. But Klopp's side are coming off two big wins over Manchester City and Crystal Palace, with Roberto Firmino scoring in both games. The Brazilian should be poised for another strong effort against an inconsistent United defense. Expect a tight match with United using a counter attack to keep the match competitive.
Predicted Score: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United