Overrun by Liverpool, Man United's stumbling season continues
Inside Anfield, an hour after the final whistle of Liverpool's 2-0 win against Manchester United on Thursday, former Liverpool captain Jamie Carragher stopped to talk as he walked towards the seats in the away end.
Carragher understands supporter culture far better than almost anyone who plays or who has played professionally. As a youngster, he watched Everton home and away with his father and learned to keep his mouth closed when leaving hostile places like Old Trafford.
He admits he always hopes that Manchester United lose, but that doesn't mean he doesn't respect the club. A man with a passion for learning as much about football as possible, Carragher was once caught buying a Manchester United fanzine at Manchester Airport. "Know thy enemy" was his mantra.
Naturally, given Thursday's Europa League Round of 16 first leg result, Carragher was happy. "I thought Liverpool were outstanding," he said. "It was probably as poor a Man United performance as I can remember, but the one thing which kept nagging at me throughout the game were the saves of David De Gea coming back to haunt Liverpool. That is still haunting me. We would have bitten your hand off for a 2-0 scoreline before the game, but it's only a goal each half for Manchester United and it's still a very difficult place to go, no matter what problems Manchester United have."
Asked why United had been so poor, Carragher replied: "The pressure Liverpool put on them. [Jurgen] Klopp's Dortmund team did it to Man City. And to be honest, Man United don't have the quality of players to deal with that pressure. They did in the past, but even then Liverpool put United under pressure at Anfield on the tighter pitch. The bigger pitch may play into United's hands."
The two-goal advantage makes Liverpool favourites to advance to the final eight.
"At 1-0 I would have said [the tie] was 50/50, maybe with United as slight favourites," said Carragher. "At 2-0, Liverpool are probably slight favourites."
Carragher praised the Anfield atmosphere, as did Klopp and United's manager Louis van Gaal, who said he wanted a similar environment at Old Trafford for the return leg next Thursday.
"It's up to Liverpool to kill that atmosphere at Old Trafford by getting a goal, because if Liverpool get a goal that could be the end of it," said Carragher.
Juan Mata walked by. A two-goal hero at Anfield in the Premier League last season, on this occasion the man chosen to captain United on the night was in a more solemn mood.
"They pressured us very intensely," said Mata. "We saw what Klopp did in Germany and that's what his team did here tonight. We changed our system for the second half and were a little better, but not enough. We had a plan for the game but evidently it did not work."
Mata, who will miss Sunday's FA Cup quarterfinal tie at home to West Ham after being sent off at West Brom, looked ahead to next week's return leg.
"The key is to score early and to produce the type of performance that we did both this and last season against Liverpool, when we scored three goals in each game," he said while standing at the side of the Anfield pitch before joining his teammates on the bus back to Manchester.
"We need to try to do what they did to us, to create the atmosphere and play with aggression and intensity," Mata continued. "We have to do that next Thursday. The atmosphere from the fans is very important. We need the fans to be the 12th man."
United fans will rise to that challenge. Despite watching their side get beaten, the 2,700 in attendance on Thursday were loud, although very few chose to wear the white away shirt which was gifted to them by the club and a sponsor. The idea of creating a "white wall" was well-intentioned and generous, but it was also a marketing ploy that did not understand fan culture and therefore failed miserably.
Some of the songs sung, such as "26 years" to remind Liverpool fans how long it has been since their club last won the league title, were fair game. Liverpool fans did the same when United went from 1967-93 without a championship. (If Liverpool don't win the league next season, they'll surpass a mark they once thought would never apply to them.)
Other songs and chants relating to football disasters, though, were unnecessary and unwarranted. They stain one of the great rivalries in world football.
Thursday night belonged to Liverpool and a beaming Klopp, who had been animated in Anfield's tiny technical area on a night when he got the better of Van Gaal's side tactically, showed what the victory meant to him at the end of the game.
As the Liverpool manager congratulated his players with a beaming smile, United representatives Sir Alex Ferguson, Ed Woodward and David Gill slipped out of their seats in the Anfield directors' box, ashen-faced and clearly unhappy at another poor performance.
Both Klopp and Van Gaal have a chance for their teams to end this underwhelming season with a smile by winning a cup competition. Liverpool fans have more faith in their manager than United's do in theirs and, after Thursday night's match, it's clear why.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.