So It's Come to This: Liverpool v Manchester United in the Europa League

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So It's Come to This: Liverpool v Manchester United in the Europa League

Modern football is a sad place. It’s populated by heartless businessman, reclining in dark leather chairs that swivel dramatically on demand, who chomp on cigars while counting their billions in TV money, and agents who cruise the streets in solid gold Rolls Royces, stopping only to call players over to their windows where they entice them into forsaking one club for another with sweet nothings and promises of riches.

And that’s not even the saddest part. The saddest part? Liverpool versus Manchester United in the Europa League. Look! Look at what has become of them! Look at them, as they delude themselves into thinking that playing in second rate tournament is an okay thing. Two coaches, men of achievement, leading clubs that once viewed European titles of the highest kind as their birthright, left to spin spin spin.

“It’s not normal that one team is dominating for 20 years in a row,” Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal said on Wednesday. “It was another time. You live in the past. You have to live in the present. Other teams are in the Champions League.”

Yes, Louis, that’s exactly the problem. Other teams are in the Champions League. Other teams that are better at football.

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?Pause for a moment and try to imagine Sir Alex Ferguson uttering those same words in his famous Glaswegian accent. I, for one, cannae. The very suggestion that Manchester United might be satisfied with a chance to win the Europa League might get one a large bruise from home beauty apparati.

The Europa League matters, they say. There’s no shame in it, they say. This is the way of the world now, they say. Times have changed, they say.

The Europa League! Why, the two titans of English football might as well be playing in a cow patch for a pitcher of cream. Reduced to such a humbling exercise as playing for a trophy that more often than not the big clubs of Europe view as a distraction, Liverpool and United are locked into an echelon of European football that includes clubs whose names have no need for vowels.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is focusing on the opportunity the Europa League presents. If the Reds can get by United and win the title, they’ll receive a berth in next year’s Champions League, regardless of where they finish in the Premier League table. Well, “focusing” in the sense that he’s acknowledging the path but it’s emphasizing it. Or something.

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“We will try to keep focused on the games rather than working out the best way into the Champions League. Both routes are quite difficult,” Klopp told reporters this week. “We cannot get close enough in the Premier League if the teams above us keep winning, and in the Europa League there are further rounds to win even if we get past Manchester United. Now you can see the finish line in this tournament there are only good teams left, it’s something like a small version of the Champions League in its own right.”

...something like a small version of the Champions League in its own right.

It’s obvious what Klopp means—he’s speaking about the quality of the teams remaining in the the Europa League—but it still rings like an attempt to convince himself and Liverpool’s fans that if they squint really hard, this game and this tournament might feel like the good old days. Klopp himself wasn’t around then, and to be fair to the German, the Europa League campaign this year is something he inherited, but that doesn’t change his role as lead prestidigitator.

Maybe the winner of this tie goes on to win the Europa League, claiming a trophy desperately needed but more importantly, claiming the Champions League place that comes with it. Maybe, come a few years time, we’ll be talking about that crazy time Liverpool and Manchester United slummed it in the Europa League as we watch two of history’s greatest clubs regain their places among Europe’s elite.

Louis van Gaal says fans should stop living in the past when it comes to Manchester United’s place in the Europa League. His matter-of-fact take that “this is football” and “this is normal” might have merit, but it also comes off as angry and dismissive. It’s nearly impossible for United fans not to live in the past when the past was better, when the past featured games against clubs like Liverpool on the biggest stages the game has to offer. When the past wasn’t an exercise in roiling angst over why the club wasn’t meeting its expectations.

At least Liverpool has some experience with this sort of thing, having not been a threat to claim European glory in the Champions League for quite some time. For fans on Merseyside, the tie against their English rivals probably is as much about bragging rights as it is winning the secondary continental competition or gaining entry into next year’s Champions League. Smaller victories matter at Anfield because big ones exists farther in the past.

There’s a contingent of football fans in the world, many of them loyal to a certain set of white-clad underachievers in North London, who swear the Europa League is a strong, worthwhile competition that should be viewed as such by the snobbish elites. They’re probably right. Playing in the Europa League is better than not playing in any European competition at all, even if it does happen on Thursday nights and have the feel of a tournament made up of consolation games.

But Liverpool versus United? In the Europa League? That’s just sad.

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