Liverpool arguably have more at stake vs. Man United in the Europa League
"The mother of all football games" is how Jurgen Klopp described it in his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. Liverpool against Manchester United is a big deal regardless of the occasion but this Thursday's clash at Anfield has added spice: it sees the two North West giants face off against each other in European competition for the first time ever. The biggest rivalry in English football is about to have an all-new chapter added to its rich history.
Liverpool go into the game having lost four straight to a United side that has not even had to play especially well in any of those victories, and defeat this week would mark the first time the Reds have ever lost five in a row to their fiercest rival. The Merseysiders were rarely outplayed in any of those losses but their tendency to waste chances and give away cheap goals has proved costly, not least in the most recent encounter at Anfield earlier this season. United won 1-0 late on with what was their first and only shot on target after Klopp's side had earlier squandered several gilt-edged opportunities.
Despite those poor recent head-to-head results, Liverpool won't fear United and nor should they, but they do need to fear the consequences of defeat. While United still have a shot at glory in the FA Cup, Liverpool's season is on the line and having it ended by their most hated rivals is a fate nobody at Anfield will want. Losing is simply not an option.
The fear of defeat is undoubtedly a powerful motivator but so too is the carrot of making history; both sets of players have a chance to do something that will be talked about by supporters of their club for generations to come. Some of the most revered figures in Liverpool history are remembered for their exploits in European competition and should Liverpool beat United on the way to possibly lifting the Europa League trophy this season, that's exactly how legends are made.
Older Liverpool fans have countless memorable European nights to look back on but this group of players now have an opportunity to write their own small piece of history and provide younger Kopites with their own "Anfield under the lights" experience. They certainly won't want to be the team remembered for losing to United in Europe, especially just two weeks after being beaten by Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley.
This tie is massive for both clubs but it might just mean slightly more to Liverpool given they are still dealing with the disappointment of losing that recent cup final on penalties. The pain of that loss will still be with them and should provide extra motivation. In terms of the supporters, however, United's fans will be every bit as desperate to win this as Liverpool's, even if it is "only" the Europa League.
Because of the intense rivalry, a competition that Liverpool and United fans may have generally regarded as being second rate has now suddenly taken on huge importance. Defeat to a random European side would be met with a disappointed shrug, but the hurt of losing to the old enemy will stay with fans for an awfully long time. It should make for a white hot atmosphere in both legs.
Liverpool go into the game on the back of successive wins while United followed up an unconvincing 1-0 home win over Watford with a narrow loss to West Brom by the same scoreline. Form can be completely disregarded here though, it's irrelevant. Instead, it's all about who best rises to the occasion and handles the pressure.
Klopp has the rare luxury of choosing from an almost full squad. Lucas Leiva is injured and Jon Flanagan is ineligible having been omitted from the Europa League squad -- a decision Klopp has since admitted was a mistake -- but aside from that, virtually everybody should be available for selection. Liverpool's bench last Sunday included Daniel Sturridge, Christian Benteke and Philippe Coutinho; picking his team for United's visit won't be easy.
The goalkeeper, full-backs and central midfielders virtually pick themselves, but competition is intense at centre-back and in the attacking positions. Dejan Lovren has returned to the side in terrific form and will presumably be partnered once again by Mamadou Sakho; if Kolo Toure is once again overlooked, he can certainly consider himself hard done by as he's been absolutely faultless over the past few months. Fit-again Martin Skrtel will also be hoping to get the nod but he's been out since December and the substitutes bench is surely the best he can hope for.
It's at the other end of the field where it could get really interesting. Klopp has three strikers fighting for one position, but it's not inconceivable that all could miss out. Klopp has occasionally preferred to use Roberto Firmino in a false nine role, supported by Adam Lallana and Coutinho, and it would not be too much of a shock if he took that approach again in one or both of these games against United.
Divock Origi has led the line quite well of late and his willingness to work the channels and chase lost causes has seen him become a popular figure with the supporters, but he isn't providing much of a goal threat. Sturridge is the polar opposite. He's not going to run the channels as he prefers coming short to receive the ball to feet. He's not much use in the pressing game either but give him a chance and more often than not he'll bury it. Just as significantly, Sturridge can also create his own chances out of nothing and is Liverpool's only genuinely world-class talent. Leaving him out of a game such as this would be a huge call for Klopp, especially with the first leg being at Anfield. Presumably, he will come back into the line up after sitting out the past two games.
Christian Benteke will also be hoping for an opportunity after his match-winning exploits at Selhurst Park last weekend. He's been in better form of late and has shown an admirable willingness to fight for his Anfield career. His best hope of seeing any action appears to be coming off the bench, but the Belgian may yet have an important part to play in settling this tie -- football can often throw up stories like that.
Winning the competition and qualifying for the Champions League -- the Europa League winner gets an automatic spot -- will be the furthest thing from the minds of supporters on Thursday. It's all about beating the arch enemy and for that reason, this will be the biggest across the whole of Europe this week, regardless of the prestige of the competition itself.
For once the Champions League may have to take a back seat to its little sibling because Anfield is unquestionably the place to be this week.