Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool knock Man United out of the Europa League
MANCHESTER, England -- Anthony Martial gave Man United hope before Philippe Coutinho broke their hearts, as Thursday's 1-1 draw ensured Liverpool's spot in the Europa League quarterfinals with a 3-1 aggregate victory. Here are three quick thoughts from Old Trafford.
1. Liverpool knock Man United out to surge on
Exit, Manchester United. Liverpool march on in Europe, completing a job they began so energetically at home as Thursday's 1-1 draw brought a 3-1 aggregate triumph. It may not be a fair reflection of their efforts over the two legs, given their dominance at Anfield last week, but the travelling Merseysiders could still enjoy both the outcome and the sight of their United counterparts starting to stream out of Old Trafford with a quarter of an hour to go.
The home fans' departures spoke volumes. For a dozen or so heady minutes, United were wondering if this would be one of their great European comebacks from 2-0 down to rank alongside the Barcelona game in 1984 or the Juventus trip in 1999. It wasn't, though. This United team does not have greatness in their grasp as Liverpool had too much class.
The visitors progressed with a flourish as Coutinho clinched a result to remember with a goal to savour. Jurgen Klopp has claimed a famous victory. Liverpool have been inconsistent in his reign but their highs have brought moments to treasure. For Louis van Gaal, meanwhile, this ranked as another low. He has now been knocked out of two European competitions this season.
Van Gaal's side at least played with more urgency and intent than usual. They attacked with verve, conscious that such deficits can't possibly be wiped out by sideways passing. If it ranked among the brighter performances of their season, the reality is that playing dreadfully for 90 minutes of a 180-minute tie is scarcely a recipe for progress.
Man United did begin brightly this time. Having won a penalty in the first leg, Nathaniel Clyne conceded one in the return fixture, tripping Anthony Martial as he accelerated away from him. Having been promoted to become penalty taker in Wayne Rooney's absence, the Frenchman sent Simon Mignolet the wrong way.
Martial was terrific but Liverpool nonetheless possessed the greater incision as the hosts lived dangerously at times. David de Gea added to his Anfield heroics with a brilliant save from Coutinho. Daniel Sturridge hit the bar with a free kick from an acute angle. Jordan Henderson, who skied a great chance last week, repeated that feat. Then came the goal that meant United required four on the night. It was a finish of impudent brilliance from Coutinho, deftly chipping by De Gea at his near post. Even an exceptional goalkeeper met his match.
It was a reward for Klopp, too. The German's positive selection showed he had prioritised scoring an away goal. Coutinho, who rivaled De Gea for the unofficial man-of-the-tie award, delivered it. It means Liverpool can advance with confidence. United go into Sunday's Manchester derby knowing a top-four finish acquires still more significance, and aware that April's FA Cup replay with West Ham is their final shot at silverware.
2. Fellaini fails to elbow Liverpool out of Europe
There is a sense sometimes that if managers are going to lose, they may as well do so being true to themselves. Van Gaal was. He took the unpopular, obstinate approach of picking Marouane Fellaini.
If nothing else, it displayed a consistency of thought. Before last week's setback, he had won his first four games against Liverpool. Fellaini had often played a pivotal part in those wins and even with Ander Herrera injured, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin were still left on the bench to accommodate the Belgian.
But in many respects, Fellaini was doubly fortunate to be playing: Van Gaal praised him after undistinguished performances at Anfield and against West Ham, while UEFA opted not to take disciplinary action for his first-leg elbow on Emre Can. Within 10 minutes, Roberto Firmino was the latest Liverpool player feeling the force of his increasingly infamous elbows. This was a lesser offence and the referee settled for a ticking off. His third elbow of the tie, early in the second half, brought a belated booking; this time, Dejan Lovren was the victim.
Yet the rampaging giraffe had a capacity to discomfort Liverpool. One solo run, during which he beat two men and found Martial in a dangerous position, showcased a rare moment of skill. He used a telescopic leg to reach a long ball from Daley Blind and set up Marcos Rojo, who should have scored. Yet chaos theory, Fellaini-style, means he can endanger both sides. He released Sturridge with one misplaced pass but thankfully for him, Blind blocked the striker's shot.
Come the second half and with United requiring three more goals, Fellaini operated farther forward, which permitted the direct tactic of aiming for the ungainly giant. One header was held by Mignolet. He lifted a shot into the Stretford End. He may be a menace but his finishing is erratic. He hits the target with his elbows more often than his shots.
3. Milner excels out of position
It threatened to be a problem. Liverpool required a defensively sound display and one of their back four was not even a defender by trade. With Alberto Moreno injured and Jon Flanagan ineligible because he wasn't registered for European competition, James Milner filled in at left-back. The Englishman left Manchester City in part because of his determination to operate as a central midfielder. Now the ultimate odd-job man has found himself in a role that even he has rarely occupied.
The temptation would have been to present him with the stiffest possible test defensively and deploy either of the speedsters or Marcus Rashford on the right wing. Van Gaal eschewed it, instead picking the slow Juan Mata as Milner's immediate opponent while Jesse Lingard began as United's No. 10.
And so Milner, a man accustomed to covering more ground than anyone else was part left-back, part left-winger, ploughing a furrow along the touchline with typical diligence. He became a genuine attacking outlet, picking out Sturridge with one penetrative pass and surging past Mata on a long break from deep.
It was a testament to Milner's reliability that Liverpool's problems came on the opposite flank, where Martial won his duel with Clyne. After the uncharacteristic rush of blood that meant his previous outing, at Crystal Palace, was curtailed by a red card, he went back to being a manager's dream, an uncomplaining, efficient jack-of-all-trades who can pass as a master of several.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.