Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield on Thursday night, hoping to gain the advantage in the first leg of the Europa League knockout stages.
Liverpool go into the match on the back of a somewhat controversial victory against Crystal Palace. The Reds were in control for the majority of the first half, picking up where they left off against Manchester City in the first 20 minutes where they pressed and harried Palace into a number of mistakes. As a result, it was the away side that caught they eye with a series of good flowing attacking moves getting Liverpool into dangerous areas.
However, the Reds failed to take the lead while they were on top and Palace regained a foothold in the game, showing some nice attacking moves themselves with the threat of Bolasie and Zaha. It was the home side who had the two best chances of the first half with Adebayor’s header from close range cannoning against the bar before Yannick Bolasie’s shot was well stifled by the on rushing Simon Mignolet, who got down well to make a brave save to keep the scores level at 0-0.
Despite their positive start, it was Liverpool who fell behind after 48 minutes. Yohan Cabaye’s corner was met by a number of poor blocks from the Liverpool defence who struggled to clear their lines. The ball then fell to Joe Ledley, who expertly rifled the ball into the back of the net, giving Simon Mignolet very little chance with the number of players obstructing his view. The goal was the defenders first for a year. Things then turned from bad to worse for Liverpool when James Milner received his marching orders following a second yellow card offence in the 62nd minute. However, rather ironically, the sending off seemed to galvanise Klopp’s side and propel them towards their come back.
Crystal Palace looked pretty comfortable for the majority of the second half but a goalkeeping mistake from Alex McCarthy gifted Roberto Firmino the ball just outside the area. The Brazilian remained calm and composed, taking two touches to settle himself before curling the ball into the bottom corner to bring the scores level. At that point, while the odds were still against Liverpool, they were playing as if they were the side with the man advantage, pegging Palace back into their own half while still needing to be alert to the threat of a counter attack.
It seemed as though the game was all set to finish at 1-1 but some late late drama saw Christian Benteke, a very unlikely source to say the least, steal the points for Klopp. With virtually the last kick of the game, Benteke converted from the penalty spot, showing a cool head to slot comfortably past the Palace goalkeeper after the linesman judged that Damien Delaney fouled Christian Benteke in the area.
The decision was surrounded with great controversy but replays showed the defender’s knee coming across to unbalance the Belgian forward and send him to the deck. 2-1 Liverpool and another vital three points for Klopp’s side, who sit just three points behind United in the league with a game in hand.
The result means Liverpool will head into the game in good confidence given their string of positive recent results. Klopp’s side showed good character to get them back into the game despite being a man light and it’s worth noting how impressive the defensive performance of Dejan Lovren was throughout the match. The Croatian won headers all day long against Adebayor and was first to the majority of balls, reflecting just how far he has developed since his first torrid season at Anfield.
In his pre-match press conference, Jurgen Klopp stated that Thursday’s game is “the mother of all football games.” Klopp said: “I always said the Europa League is very exciting. It’s really, really big. I hope it’s not the biggest [match] in my Liverpool career but it’s very important. I have absolutely no problem with Louis van Gaal but the last thing I want is for him to win. Games like this are the mother of all football games.”
Manchester United have won three European Cups – most recently in 2008 in its current Champions League format – while Liverpool have lifted the trophy on five occasions. Liverpool have won the Uefa Cup three times, most recently in 2001, while United’s best run was to the quarter finals of the competition in 1985.
Louis Van Gaal travels to Anfield on Thursday night hoping to become the first Manchester United manager in history to win five consecutive games against Liverpool. The Dutchman extended his record against Liverpool to four wins with a 1-0 Premier League victory at Anfield in January.
Manchester United, in contrast to Liverpool, head into the game on the back of a defeat following a disappointing 1-0 defeat against West Brom. The Red Devils got Juan Mata sent off after roughly 30 minutes and faced an uphill battle for the remainder of the match, struggling to provide any attacking threat due to being a man down. In truth, it was a poor performance for Van Gaal’s side, who will need to do much better on Thursday night if they are to come away with a positive result.
The result was the first time West Brom have won at home against Manchester United for 32 years with Salomon Rondon’s low strike proving the difference between the two sides. The home side created few chances against the 10 men of United but Rondon cleverly found space after some poor defending following a cross from Sebastien Pocognoli on the left wing. Louis Van Gaal’s side didn’t look lke equalising and the result puts their hopes of a top four finish further in doubt as they currently lie three points adrift of Manchester City.
Manchester United have won three European Cups while Liverpool have lifted the Champions League trophy on five occasions.
Daniel Sturridge is likely to return to the starting line-up for Liverpool in place of Divock Origi who performed well at the weekend. Nathaniel Clyne will also return for the Reds with Jon Flanagan not registered to play in the Europa League. Therefore, Alberto Moreno is set to start on the left hand side despite a number of defence mistakes this season.
James Milner is a doubt for Liverpool after being sent home from training with an illness and thus Coutinho is set to start for the Reds.
Jesse Lingard is suspended for Manchester United and Adnan Januzaj is cup tied while Antonio Valencia is set to be involved on Thursday after recovering from a foot injury.
Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Will Keane, Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones are all side-lined for the game.
Predicted Line Up
Simon Mignolet made some key saves at the weekend against Crystal Palace and despite some inconsistency and catastrophobic errors this season, the Belgian should remain in goal. Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho were exceptional at the weekend, especially the Croatian and thus I see no reason to mix things up at the back and disrupt the flow. Alberto Moreno is set to start on the left hand side given that Jon Flanagan is ineligible for the competition while Nathaniel Clyne will return to the side.
In midfield, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson will once again give the supply lines to the side and allow the front three the freedom to move forward and cause the United defence problems. Daniel Sturridge was an unused substitute against Palace but is likely to be in the starting line-up and his quality on the ball and from finishing could be key to the outcome of the match.
Liverpool will want to take an advantage to Old Trafford for the second leg of the tie and thus it will be up to Klopp’s side to come out and show what they are capable of on Thursday night. Since the Capital One Cup final defeat, Liverpool have been angry for revenge and their results against City and Palace in the league will give them confidence heading into the match.
At the weekend, United were poor defensively against West Brom and Klopp will be looking to exploit such frailties. If Liverpool can be tight at the back and show the attacking freedom and creativity they have in recent weeks, I think they’ll come away with a good result on Thursday. However, they will need to be wary of the attacking threat of Manchester United. The injuries to the away side could prove vital.
Prediction: Liverpool 2-0 Manchester United