It may well have been the Europa League tie, but Liverpool supporters didn’t care much about that on a memorable night at Anfield as they thrashed bitter rivals Manchester United.
Despite being a first-leg win in the last 16 of Europe’s secondary competition, it is still a result which will be remembered as the old enemy were put to the sword.
While winning the Europa League was believed to be Manchester United’s best ever chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League, having slipped down to the sixth position in the Premier League, but even the quarterfinals now look all but out of reach after another sobering loss for manager Louis van Gaal.
Daniel Sturridge’s first-half penalty and a Roberto Firmino goal in the second half gave Jurgen Klopp’s boys a thoroughly deserved win as they dominated a toothless and timid United.
And now after this impressive display, it makes them hot favourites to secure the quarter-finals place ahead of next Thursday’s second leg clash at Old Trafford.
“The fans were brilliant, electric,” reacted skipper Jordan Henderson. “That gave us a great boost. De Gea made some good saves, we created a lot of chances and we felt we could be two or three up.”
Statistically, it was the 167th meeting between the two sides and the first in European competition; the fact it came after back-to-back elite Champions League nights suggested how these clubs have slipped in recent years.
But there was no getting away from the fact, it was an exciting clash between the sixth and seventh best teams of Premier League in a frantic opening 20 minutes which was to some extent full of bluster but a bit low in quality.
Liverpool fans were desperate to come out with one of those special atmospheres the club is so famous for and also cranked up the volume for a traditional ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ just before the kick-off.
Jurgen Klopp, who had labelled the tie as “the mother of all football games” ahead of the kick-off, clearly enjoyed the atmosphere, tapping his heart proudly acknowledging the home fans as he entered in the dugout.
The German boss made three changes from the first eleven that won at Crystal Palace at the weekend, bringing back Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, and Nathaniel Clyne, but his boys were initially a bit slow to settle.
However, that all quickly changed in the 20th minute as Regularly forced into defensive duties, Memphis Depay started with a clumsy challenge on Clyne and Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo pointed to the spot after what seemed like an edge.
Sturridge, despite not taking a penalty in the Capital One Cup final shootout defeat to Manchester City 11 days earlier, this time calmly guided the spot-kick beyond the outstretched fingers of David de Gea. Sturridge actually insisted on picking up the ball when the opportunity came here.
No doubt there was plenty of frustration in his left-footed strike to put Liverpool ahead. In the striker’s defence, he could barely walk at full-time at Wembley – and he was absent in the next game – but his desperation to take responsibility against United must have delighted his new manager.
But the Spanish keeper was showing his masterclass to stop the tie being all but over just inside the opening 45 minutes.
Two minutes after the opening goal, he was quick enough across his line to clear away Coutinho’s far-post tap although the Brazilian should have defeated United keeper.
Sturridge also had an opportunity for his second on the half-hour mark when Smalling surprisingly dived under his header but De Gea was quick enough to close him down and block the England striker’s goalbound shot.
And the Spaniard was again called into action as he made his third fine save before the break when keeping out Adam Lallana’s instant hit from point-blank range.
United looked simply clueless as the midfield and attack didn’t even cause any threat to the home team. Juan Mata captained them just four days after manager Louis van Gaal accused him of getting a stupid red card in the 1-0 Premier League defeat at the hands of West Brom. However, he was ineffective in contrast to his compatriot at the goal bar, alongside Marouane Fellaini making his first start in nine matches. The Belgian featured 90 minutes in all four of van Gaal’s games against Liverpool before last night, and United winning all of them.
Teenager Marcus Rashford was also included, appearing in his fifth successive start. He managed to snatch a half-chance after just 30 seconds but Depay’s cross bounced off his knee and over the bar. He was called off at half-time as clueless van Gaal tried to limit the damage.
However, it was more of the same thing in the second half also with De Gea keeping out two fierce strikes from Coutinho and Henderson.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s second goal came in the 74th minute when Michael Carrick, who replaced Rashford at the half, shockingly gave the ball away to Adam Lallana, who nicely fed Firmino to smash home from just eight yards.
The highest compliment you can give the Brazilian is this was a performance that to some extent carried echoes of Luis Suarez at his finest. Firmino is still some way from meeting those heights on a consistent basis, but he definitely deserved his goal and thrived in the electrifying atmosphere. He terrorised the United defence and forced the mistake for Liverpool’s second one. He is getting better and better. Like Coutinho, he is also a player who makes things happen with the ball at his feet.
Manchester United finally created a half-decent chance five minutes from the end, but Fellaini’s header was off the target.
It was certainly a deserved win in the first all-English Europa League or UEFA Cup clash in 43 years. Interestingly then Liverpool defeated Tottenham and went on to win the trophy. While this wasn’t such a performance which will have the rest of Europe quaking, it will give the Reds hope of seizing their only realistic opportunity of making it to the next season’s Champions League.