Philippe Coutinho’s class lifts Liverpool into quarter-finals
Anthony Martial had given Manchester United ray of hope with first-half penalty
Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho lifts the ball over Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea to score the equaliser in the Europa League second leg at Old Trafford. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Manchester United 1 Liverpool 1 (Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate)
On the balance of play, there can be no doubt the better team went through over the two legs. Liverpool had reduced their rivals to the point that the first Manchester United supporters started heading away with 15 minutes to play. Those fans have suffered more ordeals than they will care to remember this season and for a club with United’s ambitions, it might be some time before they have shaken the latest disappointment out of their system.
Liverpool’s supporters certainly enjoyed waving them goodbye before the scenes of jubilation at the final whistle and a loud, cutting song to serenade Paul Scholes’s damning criticisms of a once-mighty team. In Alex Ferguson’s day, you would still have fancied United to have a good go at saving themselves despite the grievous setback of Philippe Coutinho’s goal on the stroke of half-time.
The modern-day side, led by a bewildering manager and lacking any real form of stardust, did not have the drive, wit or gumption. Coutinho was outstanding and it was a relatively stress-free passage for Liverpool once Louis van Gaal’s team, having opened the scoring via Anthony Martial’s penalty, had lost their early momentum.
At least this time United could not be accused of lacking an understanding about what this fixture means. Van Gaal’s team set out as if affronted by the memory of their anaemic first-leg performance. They snapped into tackles in a way that simply did not happen at Anfield. They chased the ball, refused to let their opponents settle and played at a tempo that briefly offered Old Trafford hope after Martial’s penalty.
Yet the two-goal damage inflicted in their previous game was considerable and United had been looking vulnerable even before that moment, with the last action of the first half, when Coutinho spun away from Guillermo Varela, scampered in from the left flank and looped a shot past De Gea at his near post.
Coutinho had already been denied with a powerful shot that was heading for the bottom corner until De Gea managed to stretch out one of his hands to turn the ball away. Daniel Sturridge had curled a free-kick against the crossbar and Klopp looked on the point of spontaneous combustion, after 41 minutes, when Jordan Henderson exchanged passes with Coutinho only to curl a shot over the crossbar from a position when it seemed like he was bound to score.
Early on, Liverpool had seemed caught in two minds about whether they should protect their lead or play with the ambition to go for more goals. They will be grateful, at 1-0, that Marcos Rojo could not turn in Marouane Fellaini’s cutback with a chance to make it 2-2 on aggregate but it was an impressive response to going behind and, four minutes after that let-off, there was a sudden, damp silence inside Old Trafford.
Varela is a promising right back but he is still raw and inexperienced and on this occasion Coutinho beat him far too easily. De Gea had already shown it might need something special to beat him and, despite the difficult angle, the Brazilian duly provided it with the beautifully weighted finish.
That was Varela’s final contribution to the night, replaced at half-time by the fit-again Antonio Valencia, but it would be unfair to scapegoat the Uruguayan. The bottom line, however much Van Gaal denies it, is that a lack of quality runs throughout United’s team – or, at least, their outfield positions. Marcus Rashford has regressed since introducing himself with a burst of goals against FC Midtjylland and Arsenal and it seemed strange that Van Gaal selected Juan Mata, a player whose attributes have never included raw pace, on the right wing, in direct opposition to James Milner, standing in as Liverpool’s left back.
Jesse Lingard, a quicker but less creative player, was given the No 10 role and, though Memphis Depay has had an erratic first season in Manchester, there is surely an argument he ought to have played on the left with Martial taking the centre-forward duties.
As it was, Depay did not come on for a single minute and Martial was operating on the left, playing with the speed and directness that worried Nathaniel Clyne into tripping him inside the penalty area, just after the half-hour mark. Martial was placed with the penalty-taking duties because of Mata’s inability to convert one against Midtjylland and, at that stage, the home crowd must have dared to think they might pull off an improbable feat of escapology.
Coutinho’s goal changed everything, meaning United needed to score three in the second half and it was certainly perplexing that, having already changed his right back, Van Gaal’s next substitution was to take off Rojo and bring on Matteo Darmian as a replacement left back.
Van Gaal’s final switch was to bring on Bastian Schweinsteiger and, with respect to a World Cup winner, the days have long gone when he is able to shape these occasions. Coutinho beat three players with one run and it was Liverpool who were threatening more goals during the final stages of a match that also saw an outbreak of crowd trouble involving away fans in the home end.