Europa League Preview – Liverpool v Man Utd
Liverpool against Manchester United, one of the football world’s biggest rivalries, will resume this month when the clubs face off in the last-16 of the Europa League.
Neither side can win the Premier League, while Europa League glory could also be their best route into next season’s Champions League, so there is a lot up for grabs in this famous fixture.
The first leg is set to be held at Anfield on March 10th with the second leg taking place at Old Trafford a week later, so let’s look ahead at how the tie could play out.
You can’t win anything with kids
Sir Alex Ferguson proved Liverpool legend Alan Hansen wrong when the pundit claimed on Match of the Day that “You can’t win anything with kids” and United’s recent results suggest the talented crop of youngsters at Old Trafford could yet save Louis van Gaal’s job.
Van Gaal was given little option but to blood young talent due to a deadly combination of a badly imbalanced squad and a crop of injuries, with starlets like Marcus Rashford coming to his rescue.
Rashford was only thrust into United’s team for their last-32 Europa League second leg against Midtjylland at the last minute when Anthony Martial picked up an injury in the pre-match warm-up, but the talented teenager responded superbly with a brace on his debut at Old Trafford.
Amazingly, Rashford was at it again a few days later, scoring another well-taken brace as United dealt a blow to Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes with a dramatic home 3-2 victory.
Young full-back Guillermo Varela, who had earned a WhoScored rating of 8.79 against the Danes, also starred in that win, while a key role was played by Jesse Lingard, and United suddenly look to have a glut of raw talent as strong as any club in the world.
Whether these players would have got a chance without United’s injury crisis is up for debate, but there is no doubt that many of these young footballers are taking their chance with both hands.
With the likes of Martial, Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini and Matteo Darmian still on the sidelines, LVG looks set to stay with the kids.
Sturridge key for Liverpool
It is a sign of how difficult a season it has been for Daniel Sturridge that the injury-afflicted striker has only scored three goals this season – one fewer than Rashford managed in his first two matches in senior football.
Jürgen Klopp has been publicly critical of Sturridge over his fitness issues, suggesting the attacker lacks the commitment to play through the pain. At the age of 26, Sturridge should be approaching the prime of his career and looking forward to leading the line for England at Euro 2016.
Sturridge – who began his professional career on the books of United’s fierce rivals Manchester City – has looked lively since finally returning to fitness but there is a question mark over where he fits into Klopp’s gegenpressing tactics.
Primarily a penalty box poacher, Sturridge is not known for the energetic pressing Klopp demands of his strikers, although a lack of competition at Anfield – with Christian Benteke struggling in his first season, Danny Ings injured long-term with an ACL tear and Divock Origi very raw – means Sturridge is at the front of the queue of Liverpool’s attackers almost by default.
With playmaker Philippe Coutinho pulling the strings, Sturridge should be one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League. Making the difference in a Europa League tie against Manchester United would be a fine way to mark his return to Liverpool’s starting line-up.
Key fantasy players to watch
During the absence of Sturridge, Coutinho quickly became Liverpool’s key attacking player. The Brazil international has five goals and five assists from 24 appearances this season and most of Liverpool’s best play goes through his tricky feet.
However, the statistics show Coutinho’s international team-mate Roberto Firmino has been even more effective, the former Hoffenheim forward recording six goals and seven assists, albeit from five more appearances than Coutinho. Firmino has often been deployed as a striker under Klopp, but he is typically listed as a midfielder in daily fantasy football games, providing value for players.
For United, it is hard to predict what sort of line-up Van Gaal will name given the continuing injury problems at Old Trafford, while a lot of young players have exploded on to the scene before disappearing without a trace.
Rashford will want to avoid having a similar career to Federico Macheda, who looked like the next big thing when his goals helped United seal the Premier League title in 2009. Six years later, the Italian striker is at Cardiff City and has not yet scored a single goal so far this season.
Chris Smalling should be fit to take his place in the heart of the United defence, meaning Michael Carrick can step back up into midfield, but it is Ander Herrera who is arguably United’s most interesting prospect in terms of daily fantasy football.
United’s best performances this season have all seemingly come when the Spaniard has been given a key role in midfield and he was outstanding in the back-to-back Old Trafford wins against Midtjylland and Arsenal, scoring in both games. He is a man in form and well worth considering.
Finally, Memphis Depay, who is available at £8.4m on Mondogoal, has hit two goals in two Europa League appearances this season and the 22-year-old Netherlands winger appears to be finally finding his best form for the Red Devils.
Memphis Depay £8.4m in Mondogoal’s Europa League Contests (vs Liverpool, £100m Budget)