Liverpool travel to Manchester United in cautious mood despite first-leg lead
If Liverpool were leading any other team 2-0 from the first leg in a European tie, they would fancy their chances of going through. Even Barcelona, who have not beaten the Reds at home in four previous attempts, or Real Madrid, who could beat only a second-string Brendan Rodgers-coached side 1-0 at the Bernabeu in November 2014, would have their work cut out in closing the gap.
But this is Manchester United, Liverpool's hoodoo of all hoodoos, and that means the worst will be expected because that's what generally happens. The clubs' Europa League clash remains a tense affair, no matter what the score is now.
The Reds have lost only once from a two-goal first-leg advantage, in their very first European campaign during the 1964-65 season. In the aftermath, there were long, embittered allegations of refereeing bias in favour of their opponents, Inter Milan, and even claims of corruption.
A rampant Liverpool had won 3-1 with the help of a cacophonous home crowd, and the job was thought to have been finished. They were later hugely disappointed as the then-reigning European champions beat them 3-0 at the San Siro, where their fans made an even greater noise.
United have also pulled off this kind of "impossible" comeback before, most recently against Olympiakos under sacked manager David Moyes, of all people. Older football fans will remember they once did it to a Barcelona side that contained Diego Maradona back in 1984.
Liverpool's caution may be laughed at in some quarters, particularly after a first leg in which they played very well and United were wretched, with a team selection from Louis van Gaal that baffled many and in fact appeared to become more unusual after each substitution.
But that's the point: Liverpool were so good and United so bad that 2-0 inadequately reflected the gulf in class on the night. Even Liverpool's first goal from a penalty might not have been awarded by a different referee, and the second could have been given offside in the buildup. Something similar happened in Liverpool's last win at Old Trafford in March 2014. The Reds were given three penalties, Nemanja Vidic was sent off and United had only Moyes on the touchline.
That the visitors had to wait for a very late third goal by Luis Suarez to finally guarantee the points and let everyone breathe a massive sigh of relief tells the story of this fixture over the years. Even on rare occasions when everything is skewed in their favour, it's never cut and dried for Liverpool.
Historically, this is United's game, especially when the stakes are at their highest. They have won both FA Cup finals between the two clubs, in 1977 and 1996, and both FA Cup semifinals in 1979 and 1985. The League Cup has seen better fortune for the Merseyside club, but over the years its reputation as a major trophy has declined -- cynics often claim that isn't a coincidence.
Liverpool once won the treble of league, European Cup and League Cup but have often had to put up with outsiders saying it was not a "real" Treble, which should include the FA Cup. United are the only English club to ever do that, thanks in part to one earlier tie in the FA Cup that they were losing 1-0 with a minute to go and still won 2-1. That was against ... well, you guessed it, Liverpool. The Reds almost won the "real" Treble themselves in 1977 but were denied in the FA Cup final -- by United.
It takes one cursory glance at historical fixtures like these to see why Liverpool fans might not be getting carried away by their first-leg advantage. They've been bested so often that even such a glorious opportunity seems like a well-disguised trap.
In the previous decade, it felt like the United and Liverpool sides managed by Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez wanted to avoid each other at all costs. Having been drawn apart in the semifinals of the Champions League in 2007 and 2008, finals between the two did not materialise, as first United and then Liverpool lost to AC Milan and Chelsea, respectively.
Outsiders may have been disappointed that this ultimate clash of the giants never took place, but there were many within Old Trafford and Anfield who may have breathed a sigh of relief. Although there are always claims for El Clasico being the fiercest, bitterest rivalry of all, Liverpool against Manchester United has always had a nastiness all of its own. The losers of this tie, even if it is only the Europa League, can expect no mercy for years to come.
Although clearly happy with the first-leg lead, manager Jurgen Klopp could be forgiven for feeling ambivalent about how to approach the Old Trafford tie on Thursday. Another Liverpool goal would make the tie very difficult for United, but playing in such a way as to try to bring that about might leave the away side wide-open. Old Trafford will be a cauldron in any case, but if United should pull a goal back, the pressure on the visitors might be insurmountable.
Liverpool have scored in seven of their past 10 games at Old Trafford, but none of those goals could match the importance of an away goal in Europe. These are therefore uncharted waters for both clubs. Current form and the 2-0 advantage from the first game make Liverpool favourites. But the opposition and the venue will wipe that out. The only surprise on the night would be a UFO landing in the centre circle, because more or less everything else will have been seen and experienced before.
There is still great quality left in this competition, exemplified by Borussia Dortmund's 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham last week. Even with a quarterfinal place at stake, it doesn't really feel like Liverpool and Manchester United are fighting for the trophy outright. Instead, the fight is for pride. And, as both fans will testify, that counts for a great deal still.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.