Knocking Manchester United out of Europe sure feels good. And it’s a feeling that no other English club has ever experienced, if that helps amplify it any more.
The 2-0 lead we went into last night’s game with meant we had the advantage, but it hardly put us out of sight. And Utd’s early penalty put us in a very precarious position; where it seemed we’d be up against it for the remainder of the game with nerves and tension building. It was a pretty poor start by us, in a game where an early goal would have relieved all of the pressure and muted the crowd immediately. We didn’t need to go gung-ho, but it was some sloppy passes and poor decisions that allowed Utd to sense a vulnerability in us and therefore be more aggressive in their attack.
Philippe Coutinho gave the ball away far too cheaply in the build up to the penalty, and Nathaniel Clyne then made an uncharacteristic clumsy challenge in the box. James Milner and Adam Lallana too made a couple of early gaffes, while Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge struggled to have a great impact on the game. When Jordan Henderson missed an excellent chance after receiving the ball in space in the box, and Sturridge hit the bar with a free-kick, it was a testament to our mentality that we fought to regain control of the game when it was starting to seem that it wouldn’t be our day.
Coutinho’s wonderful solo goal effectively signalled the end of the game, when in reality it was only the half-time whistle that sounded. You got the impression that we could have pressed and got a winner if we really needed to, but were happier just to wait for the right moments to counter-attack, as Utd pushed on but failed to carve out any sort of decent opportunities.
One of the main reasons for this was the simply incredible performance of Mamadou Sakho at the back. He sniffed out most attacks before they could even develop, and the ones that did progress were halted with last second challenges or smart positioning. Dejan Lovren too did his bit next to the Frenchman, looking as cool and composed as we’ve ever seen him in a Liverpool shirt. Emre Can was probably Sakho’s closest rival for the man of the match title, dominating the midfield and out-muscling and out-fighting Marouane Fellaini any time the big Belgian tried any of his usual dirty tricks.
Coutinho, after maybe his worst 40 minutes as a Liverpool player, was given a boost by his wonder goal and looked more like himself in the second half. He could, and maybe should, have added to his tally, but he cut out the silly mistakes and went on a phenomenal run before setting up Sturridge, who unfortunately fired over. His stuttering start may have been down to the extra cover he was having to provide the out-of-position Milner at left back. Our number ten found himself further back than he usually would, and it was through trying to play out of these situations that led to him giving the ball away.
It would have been nice to claim a victory at Old Trafford and really make it an emphatic victory over the two legs, but the 3-1 aggregate scoreline still sends out a statement. This wasn’t a smash and grab. It wasn’t a ‘could’ve gone either way’ tie. It wasn’t even a ‘we were better on the day/s’. We were better. Full stop. Our players were better, and our tactics were better.
And our fans were streets ahead. The exact details of what occurred after the game that’s causing Uefa to intervene are unclear, but early reports suggest it’s just a ‘six of one, half a dozen of another’ scuffle between drunk supporters, after the biggest rivals in England played on the calendar date most renowned for alcohol consumption. To ask for complete serenity was always going to be a bit of stretch. On the whole though, our collective away support – and the nature of their support in terms of songs, flags, and banners – was fantastic, and in another league to the shameful ‘support’ shown by the travelling Utd fans last week.
Enough attention has already been given to the select idiots and their disgusting chants from the first leg. But our fans at Anfield responded in exactly the right way; a chorus of boos, followed by an actual footballing song to show support for one of our players or the team. And it was the same again yesterday. We didn’t stoop to their level. We just supported our team, and got our reward for that. Calling it karma that we won the tie may seem like trivialising the issue, but it certainly would have felt unjust if a team progressed in European competition whilst its support showed such inhumane, repulsive behaviour. So while we as fans rose above it, it made it all the sweeter that our team battered theirs aside with ease on the pitch. Off the pitch, you can only hope that those supporters go away and take a long hard look at themselves.
With the draw for the next round of the Europa League imminent, all eyes are on who our quarter final opponents will be. There’s maybe only one team left in the competition who would make us the significant underdogs if we were to be partnered with them; but who better to conquer those giants than the man who built them up from scratch? There’ll certainly be no fear on our side however things pan out. The footballing gods do seem to be preparing a reunion of Klopp and Dortmund at one point or another though. Let’s just make it the 18th of May in Basel, hey?
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)