Liverpool vs. Man United in Europa League: How the mighty have fallen
Right tie, wrong competition. Liverpool versus Manchester United is a dream European matchup. But the Europa League is a big club's nightmare.
United are only here because they were bounced out of the Champions League by Wolfsburg and PSV Eindhoven. Their prospects of finishing in the top four in the Premier League are looking increasingly remote, so winning the Europa League could represent their best chance of qualifying for the continent's preeminent competition next season.
Liverpool, one place below United domestically, have an even more outside chance of reaching the top four. The Northwest's two giants are playing catch-up with the likes of Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. For all the sound and fury that surrounds any Liverpool-United game, the upcoming Thursday doubleheader illustrates how badly these clubs have fallen.
The closest they came to meeting each other in Europe was in 2008. Liverpool had to beat Chelsea over two legs to set up a showdown with United. It was a close-run thing. Chelsea came out 4-3 winners after extra time in the second leg to foil what would have been one of the biggest games in history: a Champions League final between United and Liverpool.
There are many parallels between the clubs. Both have hands-off American owners. Their day-to-day operations are led by executives -- Ed Woodward at Old Trafford and Ian Ayre at Anfield -- whose performances have been the subject of ridicule. Both teams have overspent on unsuitable players. Even though victory in this tie will give the winning side's supporters a boost, it will only disguise the underlying problems that are causing two of the world's largest clubs to underperform.
There is optimism on Merseyside that a corner has been turned. In Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have the best manager available to them. He has had more impact on the mood at Anfield than on results since his arrival in October. There have been enough uplifting displays in Klopp's short tenure to suggest the future will be better. Two rousing league victories against Manchester City hint at a more successful era on the horizon.
The way forward for United is less clear. Louis van Gaal's future is debated constantly. Jose Mourinho waits on the sidelines trying to outmaneuver his enemies inside Old Trafford in the public relations war. The strategy in the boardroom is as confused and ad hoc as Van Gaal's team selections. The only positive signs in recent weeks have come from the emergence of young players like Marcus Rashford. Any smugness on behalf of the United management should be tempered, however, by the reality that blooding youth was not part of a coherent plan but a move provoked by many injuries.
Despite all this, the tie will define the season for both clubs. Klopp denied that his team selection against Crystal Palace was made with one eye on United, but if the 48-year-old was not thinking ahead what was the rationale for starting with Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho on the bench at Selhurst Park?
Klopp was on the receiving end of a 1-0 defeat when United came to Anfield in January despite Liverpool having more of the play. He will send out his strongest side in a bid to avoid a repeat of that experience.
Van Gaal will be without Wayne Rooney -- the boyhood Everton fan is always a thorn in Liverpool's side -- and United's injury problems mean that the Dutchman will put out a team that will be far from his ideal selection. Still, Van Gaal will have no fear going to Merseyside.
Since his arrival at Old Trafford two years ago, the 64-year-old has won all four meetings between these bitter rivals. United have scored nine goals in these games and only conceded two. If Van Gaal adds another victory to this sequence it would be unprecedented: the Red Devils have never beaten their hated enemies five times in succession.
Real Madrid and the other seven participants in the Champions League may scoff at the idea, but the biggest game in Europe this week is at Anfield. Unfortunately, it is still the Europa League. As exciting as it may be whenever these teams meet, everyone connected with both clubs will be hoping this never happens again.
The Champions League is where Liverpool and United need to be. That tournament is a proper stage for a clash of titans.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.