Might English football’s fiercest rivalry be facing a long, slow death? It’s a question that will be all too pertinent to those Liverpool fans who, on the grim drive home from their team’s 6-1 thrashing at Stoke, might have noted the signs for Manchester and viewed the prospect of future visits to Old Trafford, especially, with something less than the old relish. For them, the phrase ‘’motorway turn-off’’ would have acquired a whole new meaning.
As Liverpool supporters count the titles that have gone to the city at the wrong end of the Manchester Ship Canal since the mouth of the Mersey last celebrated one – the total is 15, all but two won by United – they might wonder how long solace can be taken in the European chant. ‘’We’ve won it five times’’ refers, of course, to the competition now known as their Champions League and the trophy brandished by Steven Gerrard a decade ago, after that sensational final against Milan in Istanbul.
United had been champions of Europe on two occasions at that moment and, although they have since repeated the achievement once, a further two such titles, enabling their followers to go to Anfield and cup their ears in malicious anticipation, might take a little longer. But at least United are back on the threshold of the great competition, facing a play-off for the right to enter the group stages come September (should this be negotiated, by the way, fans would be well advised to take on their travels the fascinating United In Europe, a wonderfully detailed account by Christopher Davies of every match thus far, starting with the historic slaughter of Anderlecht).
It’s taken United - even if you date their overseas campaigning under Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson from the resurrection following the Munich disaster of 1958 – considerably more than half a century to arrive at a trio of titles and they will continue to face competition from similarly great clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, not to mention Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal as and when the Premier League elite regain the qualities that enabled them to trade blows with the best in Europe.
But, now the Glazer brothers have made it clear Louis van Gaal can continue to spend big, the likelihood is that Old Trafford will once again enjoy the thrills of big European nights.
Liverpool, meanwhile, return to the Europa League and it remains to be seen if Brendan Rodgers will remain in charge after the humiliation at the Britannia Stadium. The club’s American owners – the Fenway Sports Group headed by John W. Henry II – have expressed confidence in Rodgers in the past but have history when it comes to slumps. Remember that Kenny Dalglish, after winning the League Cup at the end of February 2012, was sacked only a few months later, Henry explaining: ‘’We were 17th [in the League] over the second half of the season and Liverpool should not be in that position.’’
You can imagine such short-term thinking now: ‘’Okay, Brendan finished second in the previous season and, after seeming to survive a chastening experience in the Champions League, got some rhythm going in the Premier League, with a 13-game unbeaten run bringing 33 points from a possible 39. Then United came to Anfield and won. In the two months between then and the end of the season, we lost an FA Cup semi-final to Aston Villa and, after beating only Newcastle and QPR in a dismal sequence of nine matches culminating in the 6-1 loss at Stoke, finished sixth.’’ And what was it he concluded last time? ‘’Liverpool should not be in that position.’’
I think they should stick with Rodgers – even if there will be many disenchanted fans who would prefer an approach to, say, Jurgen Klopp, who is about to leave Borussia Dortmund. Why should the characterful German fancy Anfield anyway, after how the expectations about the place have seemed to chew up – in little more than a decade – Gerard Houllier (who once finished second in the Premier League and also supervised the collection of a European trophy), Rafa Benitez (ditto, with knobs on) and Roy Hodgson as well as the club legend Dalglish?
There isn’t the Champions League to attract stars to Anfield any more and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of it as top players leave – after Luis Suarez’s move to Barcelona, an ageing Steven Gerrard heads for the Californian sunshine and Raheem Sterling is champing at the bit as he eyes the road to Manchester – and the budget for purported replacements seems far from comparable with Van Gaal’s at United, or indeed City’s, or Chelsea’s, now that Uefa have pledged to ease the restrictions of Financial Fair Play.
It was FFP that played a large part in attracting the Fenway Sports Group to Merseyside in 2010. They thought they could make the club more prosperous while keeping costs reasonable. Hence the decision to expand Anfield – or at least increase the size and opulence of the main stand in order to have better corporate facilities – rather than build a massive new stadium. And the ‘’transfer committee’’. And the ‘’Moneyball’’ principles of recruitment that led to the massive distraction known as Mario Balotelli. It’s not good enough. Liverpool need to replace big players with big players. United have the resources to do that. Liverpool don’t and the growing fear, as Uefa hold the door at least ajar to a new wave of super-rich sugar-daddies, is that under the Fenway Sports Group they never will.