The greatest European club rivalry
... between two teams who are 6th and 8th in their league
What’s better than seeing a giant, slightly pink Dutch lunatic grapple with a chuckling, toothy German lunatic? Seeing it happen twice.
This Thursday evening, Manchester United will face Liverpool for the second leg. Liverpool’s dominant first leg win may have bitch-slapped the enthusiasm out of United mouths but this game may, hopefully, descend into an eye-jabbing, ball-twisting monkey tussle anyway.
(This is precisely the sort of impossibly alluring tie that is seriously jeopardising the Europa League’s status as the Emmerdale of European competition.)
So, in conclusion, we’re all going to have a lovely old time watching two of English football’s most decorated clubs clash shins and argue over whether Eric Djemba-Djemba was shitter than Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
Except, if we scoop away a little of the inevitable froth surrounding this tie, it’s actually an encounter between clubs in the midst of strange and unsettling transitions.
While Spurs versus Borussia Dortmund, for example, is a clash between top-two clubs in two of Europe’s biggest leagues, United against Liverpool is a match between 6th place and 8th in the Premier League. (In years gone by the same positions in the league would more likely to have produced a tie between Stoke and West Brom.)
But as they say, wiping the cliché crumbs from their greasy chins, the table does not lie. United and Liverpool, this season, have stumbled between moments of cautious hope, disproportionate despair and perplexed fury. The lads who used to not wear their United shirt in public because it could earn them an envious beating are now not wearing them because United are just poo – a sheepish withdrawal that Liverpool fans of an earlier generation know only too well.
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Interestingly, both clubs have taken fairly similar paths to arrive in this peculiar new purgatory. Liverpool were looking to escape an exhausting sequence of yo-yo seasons under Brendan Rodgers, while Manchester United were desperately trying to extinguish the flames of the shrieking, plummeting wreck that has been their succession plan for Sir Alex.
Both, tellingly, arrived at the same solution: Step 1: Get a Euro mega-manager in. Step 2: buy some trophy polish. Step 3: Arrange a self-congratulatory boardroom multi-wank.
Except, for both clubs it hasn’t exactly worked out – yet.
Jurgen Klopp has only had 36 games in charge but has already demonstrated a capacity to inspire astonishing performances and equally astonishingly f*ckwittery. For every utter spanking of Manchester City away from home, there is a hapless loss to Newcastle or Watford. For every ruthlessly efficient demolition of Southampton, there is a screaming bag of owl faces like the 5-4 kerfuffle with Norwich.
In Klopp’s defence, he is trying to build a castle using some bricks but also a lot of yoghurt pots. In his short spell in charge he’s already used 35 different players for Liverpool, searching fruitlessly for that patented Kloppian equation. In his 300-plus games at Dortmund he used just 70 players.
But while Klopp has been tentatively shuffling his pieces, Louis van Gaal has bought the entire jigsaw factory and all the surrounding factories, including that dodgy one that makes big inflatable willies for hen parties.
£250 million has been and gone through his podgy grasp, as Ed Woodward trotted across the globe finding ever more inventive ways to exchange real money for crushing disappointment. And despite the huge investment, Van Gaal’s United has been defeated by 13 different teams this season alone, the highlights being losses to a tiny Danish team with a strange name and a Norwich side that could lose to opposition comprised entirely from ice lollies.
Which perhaps explains the very different media, and perhaps fan, reactions to both men. Van Gaal is abrasive, confrontational and toweringly arrogant (incidentally the very same qualities that propelled him to league titles, cups and European trophies throughout a glittering career). Klopp meanwhile is so endearing he could probably charm Sepp Blatter into showing him his secret receipts dungeon.
But however you feel about either club, or their manager, it’s undeniable that this is a season defining game (for teams whose seasons have already been largely defined as a bit rubbish).
Progression for Klopp is a substantial and memorable achievement in a tenure currently only notable for him being a lovely man and breaking his glasses. An unlikely comeback for Van Gaal is a timely reminder that it takes colossal nuts to lead a club like Manchester United – and that a certain pair of presumptuous Portuguese gonads may not make the same kind of reassuringly fleshy thud.
This could be an extraordinary, pulsating Euro chapter in a long and deliriously clammy rivalry. It could also be one bad English team scrapping to get themselves back in to the tie against another bad English team to see who gets knocked out by Sevilla in the next round. Either way we’ll be there to see it unfold because, quite frankly, there’s f*ck all else to do on a Thursday.