Coutinho inflicts painful wound on old enemy
Manchester United 1 Liverpool 1
Published 18/03/2016 | 02:30
There was a time at the stadium they call the Theatre of Dreams when Manchester United would consider a defeat to Real Madrid or Bayern Munich as a bona fide European catastrophe, but these days even the eighth-placed team in the Premier League can come to town and get the result they need.
Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate
In English football's second-tier European shoot-out, Uefa's meeting of the mediocrities, it was the oldest enemy of all who came to Old Trafford to remind United of how far they have fallen in the days since Alex Ferguson was in charge.
This was a game that required all the old traditions of United on a European night to be summoned and yet it ended with all the atmosphere of an August InterToto Cup qualifier.
Louis van Gaal's team were embarrassed again, reducing to one competition, the FA Cup, their chances of a first trophy in the third season post-Ferguson. The old boy was there again, clenching a fist in celebration when Anthony Martial converted a first-half penalty and then surely, like the rest of the home crowd in a full house, gradually lost the belief that this United side would ever get out of third gear.
The game turned on its finest moment of quality, a run and finish from Philippe Coutinho just before half-time that left United requiring three goals to reach the quarter-finals and no discernible means of scoring them.
Jurgen Klopp's game-plan was pretty much close to perfect but United played straight into it, conceding at that critical moment before half-time and denying themselves the momentum of a flying start to the second half.
The greatest fear crowding into the mind of the United chief executive Ed Woodward, Van Gaal, and everyone else with a stake in the deposed kings of English football was surely that this was the current United team doing their best. Marouane Fellaini skying presentable chances, Marcus Rashford's rawness, Guillermo Varela's calamity at right-back - all these elements are very familiar.
What they learned was that there is no inexhaustible well of magic at Old Trafford. All those memorable nights when victories were conjured up against big European clubs? They were achieved because United had a good team, occasionally a great team, and now they just have a very ordinary one - and no weight of history, or tradition, or 75,000 people can change that reality for them.
The outstanding player was Coutinho, not only for his goal but a run in the second half that took him past four United players and a shot with 12 minutes later that David de Gea turned over the bar.
Liverpool are no great certainties to win the Europa League but they have a much clearer idea of what they are doing, and a greater concentration of quality in attack than Van Gaal has at his disposal.
When the occasion demands it, United can attack as they once did - not with the finesse and the ruthlessness of days gone by, but they can get it forward and into the opposition area. For every midfield pass that went backwards there was, this time, an effort to make sure the next one went forwards.
Liverpool, with Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Coutinho, looked crisper on the attack but, in the first half, they did not have United's energy as the home team chased down the two-goal margin. They are both a long way from the finest teams in the Premier League, never mind Europe, so it was the intensity that was the big sell to this tie.
Rashford, as a central striker, combined with Martial, the real dependable quality attacking player available to Van Gaal and deployed on the left wing.
James Milner, at left-back, hesitated when Marcos Rojo crossed but Jesse Lingard could not keep his header away from Simon Mignolet. In the end, it was Martial who forced the issue by powering past Nathaniel Clyne and winning a penalty from the full-back's clumsy challenge, a penalty that the French striker buried himself.
But even before then United had been given warning of how exposed they could be on the counter-attack when Coutinho connected well from the edge of the box and De Gea made a fine save to his left.
The goal from United, just after the half hour, raised the stakes. They nearly levelled the tie when Daley Blind launched a ball half the length of the pitch for Fellaini to cut back at the far post but Rojo, running on to it, was denied by the excellent Mamadou Sakho.
Before then Liverpool's best chance after the Coutinho strike had been an excellent free-kick from Sturridge from wide on the right. It had come soon after the Martial penalty and somehow Sturridge got enough dip and curl to get the ball past De Gea and the shot hit the bar.
Liverpool have a greater level of quality in their attack, a quicker, more polished cutting edge than United. Never was that more obvious than in the seconds before half-time when Coutinho was able to isolate Varela down the left wing and, having drawn the Uruguayan full-back in, dipped past him on the outside, drew De Gea out and lifted the ball over the goalkeeper.
It was done in a heartbeat: acceleration, close-control and a brilliant quick-finish that gave De Gea no time to react. In fact, the high standards of the United keeper would ordinarily dictate that he would never be beaten at his near post on such a tight angle, but Coutinho deceived De Gea as comprehensively as he did Varela.
Van Gaal substituted the unfortunate Varela at half-time and brought Antonio Valencia on in his place but, the underwhelming Memphis Depay aside, there were few attacking options left open to him. With every passing minute, the belief drained out of United. Fellaini was pushed forward to connect with the balls into the box and Liverpool became surer of themselves.
Fellaini might even have been sent off for an elbow thrust into Dejan Lovren's face but was allowed to get away with a booking. It was Coutinho who looked the greatest threat late on while Van Gaal shook his head on the bench and the home crowd left before the end. (© Daily Telegraph, London)