Young guns get Manchester United dreaming of Europe
Some unkind things have been said about the Europa League and Thursday night football, most of them sadly quite true. But who can resist Liverpool versus Manchester United in Europe, with one of the ancient rivals destined not quite to knock the other off their perch, but to pull up the drawbridge on back-door entry into the Champions League?
Never mind that both clubs appear to have been involved in exploratory talks to pull up the Champions League drawbridge on almost everyone else; if a breakaway super league ever gets off the ground, it will not be happening just yet. Certainly not before Thursday, when United visit Anfield with real hope, after winning both league matches this season, of reaching the last eight in Europe's hitherto unloved competition and giving themselves a shot at earning a Champions League place as well as what Louis van Gaal refers to as a title.
Perhaps that is only a slim chance for both clubs, given that Dortmund, Villarreal, Tottenham and Sevilla are still in the mix, but neither United nor Liverpool have any guarantees of qualifying through league position.
Wayne Rooney accepted a few weeks ago that the Europa League now looked the most profitable avenue to explore and, though without him Van Gaal's side have done well to climb back into contention for fourth place, progress via the European route would be a handy face-saver should Manchester City remain in the top four.
Both Liverpool and United have something to play for over and above the usual issues of pride, history and mutual loathing. If nothing else the last-16 draw brings together two English sides with eight European Cups between them, and, as they have never previously met in Europe, the tie is historic. That is, historic as in something to tell your grandchildren about, not historic in the sense that it is now a good few years since either side could call themselves masters of Europe.
It is also true, before anyone challenges the above billing with a copy of the Trade Descriptions Act, that on the last occasion the sides met, in January in the Premier League, one critic memorably likened a forgettable contest to two ageing Hollywood actors auditioning for a part they already knew had gone to someone younger and better looking.
That was before Van Gaal promoted Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and a host of other academy graduates, who actually are younger and better looking. Rashford has been the revelation of the second half of the season, because everyone loves a young goal-getter, and the chance he grabbed with both arms was in the Europa League. Rooney's prognosis that the competition could save United's season looked a little off-beam when they managed to lose to Midtjylland in the last round, but since Rashford made an unexpected debut in the return leg Van Gaal's players have not looked back.
Given their uneven form for most of the season four straight wins is not to be sneezed at, even if the sequence does include victories over Midtjylland and Shrewsbury. Van Gaal said it would take a winning run to restore the fear factor, and while it still cannot be claimed that opponents look at United's team-sheet and tremble in their boots, it has been remarked more than once over the past fortnight that their coach appears to have turned on a light and found the missing formula. Suffice to say Paul Scholes has been seen laughing and joking after a couple of recent games, even praising United's movement and adventure, whereas his default demeanour for the bulk of the season has been that of a pundit whose dog has just died.
"Young players always have desire to show what they can do - they can bring great spirit to a team but they also tend to be inconsistent," says Van Gaal. "We knew what we had here in January, that is why we did not invest, but you cannot rely on inexperienced players to reach the same level every week. Fortunately, we should have some of the senior players coming back this month, so we have a good mix and hopefully our good moment can continue."
That good moment saw United catch their neighbours on points with the midweek win over Watford, though City have moved three clear again and still have a game in hand and a home Manchester derby so Van Gaal is not getting carried away.
"We are still far away, but maybe some of the teams above us might be getting a little worried," he says. "Even Manuel Pellegrini appears to think we can climb higher. Wherever we finish in the league, it is still our aim to win a title this year, and the Europa League is a title this club has never won. A title is always worth more than just finishing in the top four, though it is Champions League qualification that is most important. That always has to be the main aim."
Should United manage a Champions League place via the league, Van Gaal would rate the achievement better than last season's performance of finishing comfortably ahead of Spurs for fourth place last season.
"This season we have had a lot of injuries to overcome and we have had to play more games with fewer players, through going further in cup competitions and switching from the Champions League to the Europa League," he says. "The competition in the Premier League is much higher this season, with Leicester and Tottenham doing so well, and we have always been in the top five. Last season, we went lower than that."
If United can crack the top four from their present position, supporters would have to admit they might have witnessed a successful season, not something many predicted in the weeks after Christmas. But that depends to a large extent on City or Arsenal stumbling. When the game kicks off at Anfield this week, United have their destiny in their own hands and Van Gaal has long been of the opinion that sport is about winning, not coming in second, third or fourth.
Far from being a fan of a closed-shop Champions League for the teams with the biggest budgets, Van Gaal even objected when the competition was expanded back in the '90s, claiming it was "rubbish" to let in teams who were not champions. Doubtless there are those who think the same description should apply to teams who qualify by virtue of Europa League success, though at least they have won something.
If United do manage to win something this season, and if that something is at Liverpool's expense, Van Gaal will have pleased his supporters even more than he did with his comedy pratfall last week. The odds might be stacked against it, and there is every chance Liverpool will ruin the script, but for the first time in a long while almost anything seems possible again at Old Trafford. Even a new title - the international rescue award for the year's most unexpected recovery.
Sunday Indo Sport