Vibrant Liverpool take control against insipid Manchester United
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three points from Liverpool's 2-0 win against Manchester United in the Europa League Round of 16 first leg.
1. Liverpool take charge
Louis van Gaal lost his 100 percent winning record against Liverpool and he lost a game in which Manchester United were as mediocre as Liverpool were lively.
The hosts produced a ferocious, fantastic performance to give them a 2-0 lead to take to Old Trafford next Thursday. A place in the Europa League quarter-finals should be theirs and, if it is, it will close off another avenue into the Champions League for United.
It was a dreadful day for United, who have followed four successive victories with back-to-back losses, and would have been a still worse one but for the brilliance of David De Gea. The goalkeeper embarked on a damage-limitation exercise, while his colleagues merely looked limited.
Liverpool were sharper and speedier, overwhelming United just as they had overcome other Mancunian opposition, in the shape of Manchester City, eight days earlier. The scoreline scarcely flattered them but this was one of their finest displays under Jurgen Klopp, to rank alongside two wins against City, as well as the 3-1 victory over Chelsea and the 6-1 rout of Southampton.
If Van Gaal got his team selection wrong, Klopp got his right. Neither Daniel Sturridge nor Philippe Coutinho had started since the Capital One Cup final but both were restored and the former opened the scoring.
Memphis Depay was caught on the wrong side of Nathaniel Clyne and tripped the advancing full-back. Sturridge is a rare penalty taker -- indeed, due to cramp, he did not take one in the Wembley shootout -- but he slotted his spot kick past De Gea.
Van Gaal's initial plan failed to the extent that he removed Marcus Rashford in a half-time reshuffle, introducing Michael Carrick at the centre of a back three. It stemmed the tide and United's best spell followed. Even then, however, they barely tested Simon Mignolet and Carrick erred for Liverpool's second goal.
His poor clearance allowed Adam Lallana to cut the ball back for Roberto Firmino to score. After winning his first four games against Liverpool, Van Gaal requires a convincing fifth triumph next season if United are not beat an ignominious retreat from a second European competition this season.
2. De Gea spares United a thrashing
"Dave saves" has been a theme of many a United game and, for now at least De Gea preserved their place in this competition. Should they progress next week, they will have the Spaniard to thank. Should Liverpool go out, they will again be cursing the goalkeeper.
De Gea has acquired a status as their nemesis during Van Gaal's reign. One of the more deceptive scorelines in recent times came when Brendan Rodgers' side lost 3-0 at Old Trafford in December 2014 and the Spaniard thwarted Raheem Sterling, among others, time and again.
The United No. 1 added to his compendium of superb saves on Thursday. First he denied Coutinho a goal when it seemed the Brazilian had rolled Sturridge's cross over the line; perhaps, had he trusted his left foot, he would have scored but the midfielder appeared to underestimate the goalkeeper's power of recovery.
Then De Gea came off his line quickly to block Sturridge's rising shot. A point-blank save from Lallana's volley later was evidence of positioning and instinct. De Gea tipped Coutinho's beautifully-struck effort over the bar and pushed Clyne's swerving effort away.
Even he was powerless when Firmino struck Liverpool's second but it had been a wonderful one-man rearguard action. De Gea was a Europa League winner with Atletico Madrid in 2010. If he is to repeat the feat with United, many more memorable saves will be required.
3. A memorable Anfield atmosphere
Many a domestic game at Anfield is conducted in the quiet, interrupted only by crowing visitors wondering where the ground's "famous atmosphere" is. They often have a point but not this time. It was exhilarating. It rarely is these days, but then these occasions are few and far between.
Liverpool had faced 122 opponents in Europe before drawing United for the first time. The artists among their support had been busy preparing for a long-awaited night. Many a flag showed an image of their five European Cups; United, of course, have only won three.
One banner pronounced: "Liverpool FC European Royalty". Another said "European Elite". So they have been, even if the inconvenient truth is that this was the continent's secondary competition, contested by clubs seventh and sixth in the Premier League. A magnificent extended version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" formed the build-up.
Yet it had the feel of "the mother of all games", to borrow the phrase Klopp used on Wednesday, and it was a stage to suit the German's style of football. Liverpool were fast and furious, mirroring the conviction of the crowd. Sometimes their enthusiasm got the better of them and a fired-up Jordan Henderson collected a second-minute caution.
But that set the tone for a night of gegenpressing, Scouse style. It met with raucous approval. Alberto Moreno appeared to acquire an extra yard of pace when he surged forward. Firmino and Lallana buzzed around, their reserves of energy seemingly replenished by the electricity in the air. Clyne powered into the box to win the penalty.
Scarf-spinning fans celebrated Sturridge's spot kick. Anfield's wall of noise was unrelenting and its sky turned red when a flare went off following Firmino's goal. Seven years to the day since the ground's last great European night -- a 4-0 win over Real Madrid -- Liverpool finally had an occasion of the same magnitude to enjoy in continental competition. The stakes were lower, but the result was greeted with similar enthusiasm.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.