Alexander Frei, Swiss ex-pro and ambassador for this season’s final in his native Basel, allowed himself a wry smile as he unscrewed the balls and pulled out the names of English football’s two most successful sides to face one another during for the Europa League round-of-16 a fortnight ago.
Despite having played regularly in Europe since the 1960s, the Red Devils have never met the Reds in continental competition, avoiding each other but playing against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal on various occasions. They nearly crossed paths when they were at the pinnacles of their footballing power in the late 2000s; United failed to join the Reds in the 2007 Champions League final, losing to AC Milan in the previous round, and Liverpool missed out on making it to Moscow in 2008 by suffering defeat against Chelsea, who went on to lose against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. That elusive final between the two never took place; a terrible shame, despite the spike in heart-attack admissions the NHS would surely have seen in the North-West at the time. Though defeat against the most bitter of rivals would have meant crushing disappointment for those on the losing side, victory would have paved the way for a life-time of celebration and gloating that no other game between them could hope to replicate.
When asked about the tie, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp asserted that it was the “logical final.” The two North-West sides are certainly the most reputable pair left in the competition, but they lack quality in comparison with some of the continent’s other teams. Klopp’s old side Borussia Dortmund and holders Sevilla are two of a number of clubs who possess far more talented squads at present, and have a more successful recent record in Europe. Indeed, Frei could easily have paired up FC Midtjylland and FC Augsburg during the draw ceremony; the former looked all but set to knock out United in the previous round until debutant Marcus Rashford’s late goals spared his team’s embarrassment, while Liverpool managed a solitary goal from a penalty against the German side and were forced to defend resolutely late on.
The fact that the pair are meeting at a relatively early stage in UEFA’s secondary club competition is a damning indictment of the expeditious slide from Europe’s summit both have seen in recent years. Since Rafael Benitez’s departure, Liverpool have been regularly knocked-out in the Europa League’s earlier rounds, while the Red Devils have struggled badly under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. This matchup could once have produced an all-time European classic, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez seeking to out-wit Jamie Carragher, and Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard running around Nemanja Vidic. In 2016, though, supporters will be subjected to Phil Jones kicking lumps out of Divock Origi, and 35-year-old Kolo Touré marking 18-year-old Rashford.
Where once they challenged for and succeeded in winning UEFA’s top competition, they now squabble over a second-rate tournament often treated with a lethargy that stems from its lowly stature in England. Taking a couple of encounters between two of the planet’s most famous teams and playing it at this stage of the Europa League is akin to performing one of Shakespeare’s works at your local Royal British Legion pub.
The English public and media’s disdain for the Europa League is well documented and based upon solid arguments—the quality of football on display is weaker than in the Champions League, the matches unpopularly take place on Thursday nights, sometimes as early as 18:00, and it can take up to an energy-zapping 17 games to finally lift the trophy.
Alas, this is the tournament in which both clubs find themselves languishing in 2016, and despite its humdrum reputation, they can use the matches to reinvigorate themselves.
Primarily, winning the tournament offers entry into next season’s Champions League, an opportunity that might elude both clubs based on current league positioning. Triumphing over the course of these games, and advancing to the latter stages, will give the victor a realistic shot at securing European silverware, and in doing so leave an old enemy’s season in tatters.
Furthermore, the tie represents a chance to improve negative moods around both clubs. Liverpool’s league season looks over with them in mid-table and they will be disappointed with last week’s League Cup final loss to Manchester City, while the undercurrent of disaffection surrounding supporters at Old Trafford has been evident all season long. The atmosphere in both legs should be a significant step up from the mundane meetings with minnows from obscure leagues, which have preceded this round. Games between United and Liverpool always see both sets of supporters at their most passionate, and the prospect of a historic first European meeting, with its added tension, dark skies, and novelty, will surely raise the noise levels even further.
A two-legged Europa League affair between Manchester United and Liverpool might not be of the same prestige or calibre as the prospective Champions League final that the continent craved in 2007 or 2008, but the winner has the opportunity to make history, secure bragging rights over a detested rival, and will attempt to re-assert themselves as a dominant force in European football.