Manchester United’s Van Gaal may not live in past, but Liverpool legend his saving grace

Richard Jolly writes the stakes may be different – this time the Europa League, and perhaps an eventual Champions League place, rather than English supremacy – but the spirit of Manchester United v Liverpool is not changed.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal shown after his team's Premier League match against Watford last weekend. Oli Scarff / AFP / March 2, 2016
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal shown after his team's Premier League match against Watford last weekend. Oli Scarff / AFP / March 2, 2016

Louis van Gaal was at his bluntest.

“You live in the past,” he told his questioner. “You need to live in the present.” But it will be a historic occasion when Manchester United face Liverpool in Europe for the first time. These clubs have a history that is unrivalled by any of their English opponents.

Yet the very fact that they meet in the Europa League, rather than the Uefa Champions League, is an indication of underachievement. Between them, the bitter enemies have won eight European Cups and 38 English league titles. Now United are sixth and Liverpool seventh. It is possible that this will be the first season since 1963 when neither will even finish in the top five.

It is a moot point if United have declined on Van Gaal’s watch. Certainly they have not performed as expected. He shrugged off their success under Alex Ferguson and Liverpool’s prowess over the previous two decades in one sentence.

“It is not normal that one team is dominating for 20 years as champions,” he said.

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Perhaps not, but Van Gaal is being naive if he thinks he should not be judged by the standards of the recent past. Ferguson famously knocked Liverpool off their perch, to borrow his phrase, supplanting them as the major force in England and overhauling their longstanding record of 18 league titles.

Now the eventual prize, given the reward on offer for winning the Europa League, may be a Champions League place, not the status as champions of England.

“It is always a big game traditionally and historically,” Van Gaal said, showing a greater appreciation of the past. “Especially because both sides fight for the Champions League position so it’s a big game for both sides.”

Comparisons with the past have rarely flattered Van Gaal. He has failed to uphold many a tradition at United. In one respect, however, he has met every expectation. He has faced Liverpool four times and won on each. No United manager – not Ferguson, not Sir Matt Busby – has triumphed in each of his first five encounters.

“It is curious Manchester United has beaten Liverpool so many times in my period but it is also for good for me because when I beat teams like Liverpool the appreciation of the fans for me is bigger so I hope we shall beat them for the fifth time and the sixth time,” said the Dutchman, whose reign has produced a host of negative statistics. “Now then I am also in the [history] books with a positive record.”

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His dispassionate approach has not always endeared him to the United faithful. His record suggests it is an advantage in this fixture.

“Several people are thinking they are the enemy,” he said. “I am not thinking like that. I am thinking they are an opponent.”

But it is the game that matters most in the country where, Van Gaal believes, football matters most.

“I think football in England is very deep in the lives of the people,” the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager said. “I have noticed that also in Spain and Germany but it is less than here. It is fantastic to see that. You can see the heart of the club. That is nice for the players but also nice for the manager.”

It promises to be a febrile atmosphere at Anfield. United won 1-0 there in January but Wayne Rooney, the scorer then, is injured. Jesse Lingard is suspended but Bastian Schweinsteiger and Antonio Valencia are on the way back and the Ecuadorian could be on the bench.

Van Gaal pledged to pick his strongest team but, given United’s injury list, youngsters are set to feature. That faith in youth brings another welcome echo of the happier days. As Van Gaal ought to know, history is never irrelevant when United and Liverpool meet. Especially when he has a chance to make it.

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Published: March 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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