“We will decide how good the atmosphere is with our performance.”
In days gone by, such a comment from the Liverpool boss on the eve of a trip to Old Trafford would have been seen as a challenge, an affront, to Manchester United’s supporters, players and, in the case of a certain Scotsman, their manager too.
But the atmosphere before this game was a strange one. Strangely subdued, strangely disjointed. Little interest, it seemed, from United’s fans in creating the kind of cauldron you felt was required if they were to overturn a 2-0 deficit.
Such is the apathy towards the Louis van Gaal regime, United’s fans could not raise themselves for a battle with the old enemy.
When the match got under way, there was the occasional riposte of defiance towards the 3,000-strong Liverpool contingent. But there was no belief. Hope, maybe, but no belief.
But after Anthony Martial – the one shining light in this underwhelming, uninspiring United team – won and converted a penalty 10 minutes before half-time, Old Trafford rocked.
Suddenly, Liverpool were on the ropes. The home fans raised the volume and their team responded. Marcos Rojo went close and United looked capable of pulling level in the tie before the break.
That feeling lasted all of seven or eight minutes. Philippe Coutinho produced the one moment of genuine individual class seen throughout the 90 minutes, and Liverpool had their away goal and place in the Europa League quarter-finals.
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) 17 March 2016
United have only scored four or more in a home game once all season, and they were never going to do so again here.
How has it come to this? United have spent over £250million since Van Gaal arrived in 2014, yet have seemed unable to do much other than tread water.
The fact Liverpool didn’t have to play particularly well here to make good on Jurgen Klopp’s pre-match words and emerge from the tie as convincing winners is a damning indictment of the Dutchman and the team he has assembled.
Not once did Van Gaal leave his seat in the dugout to instruct or cajole his players. By contrast, Klopp barely sat down. Even late in the second half, when the tie was safely in the bag, the German was a constant presence in his technical area – a blur of arms and tactical input, barking orders, praise and encouragement like the leader he is.
How United need a leader. How United need a change of direction. As the Liverpool fans serenaded Klopp, many home fans headed for the exits. And who can blame them?
— Sam Williams (@SamWilliams14) March 17, 2016
United’s only remaining chance of silverware this season is the FA Cup and, playing in this manner, few would back them to overcome a buoyant West Ham in their quarter-final replay.
Champions League qualification hangs in the balance. A derby with Manchester City on Sunday awaits.
United’s fans have not yet overtly turned on Van Gaal, but defeat at the Etihad Stadium could see apathy evolve into mutiny.
A manager like Klopp makes anything seem possible.
Van Gaal, at this stage of his career, makes it impossible for United to achieve anything.