PARIS. — Eternal rivals Manchester United travel to Liverpool in the Europa League last 16, first leg tonight in a battle of English football’s two most successful sides.
United have won the English title a record 20 times, twice more than Liverpool, but the Reds have the edge abroad, having been crowned European champions on five occasions to United’s three.
The Anfield encounter will mark the first time the teams have faced off in European competition, with the two English Premier League giants combining to lift 17 continental trophies.
And Louis van Gaal believes the prospect of Champions League qualification makes Manchester United’s last-16 Europa League tie with Liverpool today “even bigger” than usual.
United and Liverpool are meeting in UEFA’s second-tier club competition -their first ever meeting in Europe – but with both sides outside of the Premier League’s top four, winning the Europa League offers an alternative route of qualifying for Europe’s elite competition next season.
United suffered a 1-0 defeat at West Brom on Sunday and Van Gaal conceded United’s disappointing domestic form has placed added pressure on his team to advance past their bitter local rivals and into the last eight.
“You have to win – there is no difference (with it being a Cup competition),” Van Gaal said. “United and Liverpool is always a big game.
“It’s historical and even bigger now because both teams are fighting for a Champions League place.”
Central defender Chris Smalling returned from injury for Sunday’s defeat at The Hawthorns and is hoping the emotion of the occasion will inspire United to bounce back from that defeat with a win at Anfield.
“It’s a game we all look forward to and one in which we need to stand up and be counted,” Smalling said, speaking at the pre-match Press conference alongside Van Gaal.
“When you step over that white line emotion drives you on and hopefully brings out a performance in you.”
Van Gaal was asked whether United and Liverpool – two teams who have won eight European Cups between them – meeting in the Europa League was a sign of how far both clubs have fallen, but the Dutchman angrily dismissed the suggestion.
Van Gaal said: “I noticed that you have a negative view (of the Europa League in England), but against teams like Midtjylland there were how many fans? 58 000.
“The fans of Manchester United are appreciating it. How many fans do you think we’ll have against Liverpool, I think maybe 75 000.
“I think also Liverpool is sold out, so that’s what I have to say, it’s very important for both teams and the fans are liking to see the duel between us.”
One positive sign for Van Gaal heading into the game is his impeccable record against Liverpool as United manager.
The 64-year-old has won all four of his games against Liverpool, including two at Anfield, but he was keen to play down what a fifth consecutive victory would mean when asked about it.
“When you are writing that, it is much more difficult for my players to win the fifth battle against them so don’t write it,” Van Gaal said.
“It’s curious we have beaten Liverpool so many times under me, but it’s good for me as the appreciation is higher from the fans.”
Van Gaal confirmed full-back Antonio Valencia will be fit enough to take a place on the bench but German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger will not feature in the match-day squad despite returning to training earlier this week.
Winning the Europa League appears the best chance for either side to compete in next season’s Champions League, with both United and Liverpool languishing outside the top four in England.
The Red Devils won both Premier League meetings this season, following up a 3-1 win at Old Trafford in September with a 1-0 victory on Merseyside in the reverse fixture.
However, United’s 1-0 defeat at West Brom on Sunday snapped a four-game winning run in all competitions for Louis van Gaal’s side, and Michael Carrick said they can’t afford to let that derail them ahead of the Liverpool showdown.
In contrast, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have bounced back impressively from the heartache of their League Cup final defeat to Manchester City on penalties by thrashing the same opponents 3-0 three days later in the league before rallying to claim a 2-1 win at Crystal Palace on Sunday despite playing the last half-hour a man down.
Liverpool won the last of their three titles in this competition in its previous guise as the UEFA Cup in 2001, but United have never been beyond the quarter-finals of this tournament.
Tottenham Hotspur, winners in 1972 and 1984, take on Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund in another intriguing last-16 tie that pits together two more genuine contenders.
English Premier League title hopefuls Spurs lost ground on leaders Leicester City after a 2-2 draw at home to rivals Arsenal in Saturday’s north London derby and will face a stern test of their credentials by a Dortmund side still within reach of Bayern Munich in Germany following a 0-0 stalemate in last weekend’s “Der Klassiker”.
“We will now focus on Dortmund, a massive game for us,” said Toby Alderweireld, speaking to Tottenham’s in-house television channel.
“Every game from now until the end is like a cup final and we have to give everything, like we always do.”
Gary Neville’s Valencia head to Athletic Bilbao in an all-Spanish tie, less than two weeks after the Basque outfit rolled over today’s visitors 3-0 at the Mestalla in La Liga. Holders Sevilla continue their bid for a fifth title in the past decade away to Basel, whose St-Jakob Park will stage this year’s final, with Villarreal, the fourth Spanish side left in the draw, at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
Former winners Shakhtar Donetsk and Anderlecht meet in Ukraine, with 1998 runners-up Lazio in action at Sparta Prague and Fenerbahce entertaining 2011 finalists Braga of Portugal.
UEFA Europa League – Round of 16 Fixtures
Today: Bor Dortmd v Tottenham (8pm); Basel v Sevilla (8pm); Fenerbahçe v Sporting Braga (8pm); Shakt Donsk v Anderlecht (8pm); Ath Bilbao v Valencia (10:05pm); Liverpool v Manchester United (10:05pm); Sparta Prague v Lazio (10:05pm); Villarreal V Bayer Levkn (10:05pm). — AFP.