Liverpool's progress underscores Manchester United's severe issues
MANCHESTER, England -- This had, for the briefest of moments, felt like an Old Trafford European night from happier times than these. By the end, though, it was death by a thousand cuts for Manchester United, and as Liverpool's supporters reveled in their conquest, the abiding sense was that only one of these local rivals is preparing a team to create anything resembling the famous acts of years gone by.
Like many aspects of United's present-day operation, this became an inadequate imitation of evenings when, no matter how long the odds, they would chisel their way back into ties through sheer force of will. In isolation, a draw was a fair result from a high-tempo second leg, but the context remains deeply unsatisfying, and the difference in demeanour between the two managers in their post-match news conferences convincingly outlined their respective rates of progress.
"The movement, the timing, a lot of things are better," said Jurgen Klopp of an upturn in form that -- if penalties in the Capital One Cup final are discarded -- sees Liverpool unbeaten in eight games. Klopp has never been anything but candid about his side's shortcomings and was critical here of their inability to capitalise on innumerable counterattacking opportunities after half-time. "I don't know how many metres we ran because of bad [final] passes," he continued. But the bottom line was that -- as he was also happy to admit -- Liverpool fully deserved their success.
That made it all the more perplexing to hear Louis van Gaal suggest that United had "played like Liverpool did in their home match." True, their first-half showing was a profound improvement; Van Gaal's team snapped and snarled at their opponents, out-pressing them and working the ball wide with speed and accuracy. Chris Smalling set more than one attack in motion by stepping deep into the United half to win the ball, while the move for the penalty began when Marcos Rojo, their left-back, won a brave challenge on the edge of the Liverpool box. United's desire and hunger were not open to question -- it is just that so much else was.
Van Gaal's comparison with the first leg was perhaps the most perplexing of all things on the evening. By the time Philippe Coutinho, dancing past a hopelessly callow Guillermo Varela before beating David De Gea in style, had settled things, the United goalkeeper had already made a stunning and low one-handed save from the same player. Daniel Sturridge had hit the crossbar from a free kick and Jordan Henderson, despite being second best in midfield, had scooped a clear chance over inside the penalty area.
United had enjoyed no such opportunities at Anfield and, while it was natural that Liverpool would find space on the counter, a little honesty would not have gone amiss. The lack of quality was palpable, and if the second half was memorable for anything, it was the sight of Marouane Fellaini, who had been pressed into an attacking role and missed two chances to score a consolation, rejecting a chance to spin and shoot on the edge of the area before executing a painful 180-degree turn and laying the ball backward.
"We created wonderful chances, big chances, and De Gea had a wonderful night," said Klopp, who accepted that United had won too many 50-50 balls during the opening period. Klopp also outlined the difference it made to have a fit squad, which is broadly the case even if Alberto Moreno was a late casualty here with a hamstring injury. Sturridge's fitness and form certainly make a difference, and in both legs there was a fluidity and understanding among Liverpool's front four that, for all their intent, United were unable to match.
Van Gaal, who saw Antonio Valencia make his return from four months out when he replaced Varela at the break, has long had recourse to an injury list. However, that does not explain the decision to leave Memphis Depay, for all his inconsistencies, on the bench when he was the sole attacker in reserve. There is a sense that every time United take a half-step forward this season they shoot themselves in the foot. While there was energy in abundance here, it is difficult to discern that much has actually changed since the start of the season.
It has, for a club that has thrived upon going toe-to-toe with Europe's greats at Old Trafford in the Champions League, been an almighty fall. Liverpool cannot be classed in that bracket just yet, but the task in hand for Klopp now is to pull them closer to that level, and the quarterfinals bring a mouthwatering opportunity. The prospect -- spectre, perhaps -- of a reunion with Borussia Dortmund at some stage in the next two months will not go away, and it is Klopp's old side who, along with serial champions Sevilla, seem the most likely barriers between Liverpool and a first Europa League title.
However that ends up, Klopp and company will at least be able to learn through trying. Through the storm, a sense of purpose and clarity has emerged -- the same kind of lucid focus that Klopp brought to Dortmund. There is tangible improvement in a number of his players, with the excellent Emre Can -- described as a "Rolls Royce" by Brendan Rodgers and now justifying the hype -- providing a prime example. For United -- whose faint hopes of a return to the Champions League will surely be over if they lose at Manchester City on Sunday -- the status quo feels little better than a muddle.
"Manchester United always has pressure because the expectations are very high, so the pressure for these players is very high," Van Gaal said.
He was half-right. The ignominy of the past seven days means expectations around Old Trafford can hardly get much lower; the pressure, however, may soon become greater than ever.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.