The Luck of the Draw.
From time to time, cup competitions can throw up a prize draw. After a slightly more convincing home leg against FC Midtjylland, United made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League. This made 15 potential opponents in the draw, being made less than 24 hours after the game on Thursday night with the tie to be played mid-March, the first leg just two weeks later. This aspect of knockout football is what brings much of the adrenaline to following United in Europe. Just two weeks to book flights, accommodation and plan a trip to the continent.
Potential opponents included Shaktar Donetsk, the furthest away location, actually playing in Lyiv in the west of Ukraine due to ongoing issues in the Russian-bordering east. There were 4 Spanish teams, 2 German and other glamorous locations like Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic. Each of these a prospect and exciting potential trip, the full list of remaining countries including Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Turkey.
Within this mix there were also two other English teams, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. United have only ever played 2 English teams in the European cup; Chelsea in the 2008 final and 2011 quarters, and Arsenal in the 2009 semis, winning each tie. They had actually faced (and beaten) Tottenham over two legs in the old Cup Winners Cup back in the sixties, but never Liverpool. With the possibility of a 3 and a half hour flight to Istanbul, 1,670 miles away, or 2 and a half hours and 1,170 miles to Lyiv, it was just typical that the tie drawn was local and domestic rivals Liverpool. Less than 40 miles from my front door and under an hour on the train; no messing around, with trains every 15 minutes from Picadilly to Lime Street and for around 13 quid return. Even better, for the first and one of probably few occasions, I’m actually guaranteed a ticket for the match thanks to the European away credits system.
The Build Up
I make it over to Liverpool most seasons, for league or domestic cup games at Anfield and Goodison Park, but to play our biggest rivals in European competition is a whole new spectacle. It also makes for a slightly different format of blog as, to be honest, I don’t expect to spend the day taking in and documenting the sights of Liverpool. Not to say there aren’t things worth seeing in the 2008 European Capital of Culture, but for a game of such magnitude and with the general hostility between the two clubs and cities, it’ll be a full day of build up spent exploring around the local boozers. I’ll probably provide a summary after the match with some of my favourite standard commentary and details, but the trip itself will certainly be a scaled down effort compared to the usual European tours. So bring on the scousers.
After such a big build up and plans to see a few different pubs than the usual trip to The Richard John Blackler, the Wetherspoons pub down the road from Lime Street station, we actually ended up spending much of the match day in Manchester. The pubs here were busy early on with groups of reds all due to head over to Liverpool. It was only actually by about 3pm that we jumped on the train, and on arrival found a pretty quiet city centre, at least in regards to the number of United fans. A bit of intel came in from some friends that most people had congregated at The Brick, a small pub just 100 yards away from Everton’s ground Goodison Park – itself just a mile or so from Anfield. This was just a short trip in a taxi, 2 miles from the city centre. Despite a heavy police presence here we still managed to enjoy a few songs and drinks, which worked out quite reasonable at just over £2.50 a pint.
The walk from Goodison to Anfield through Stanley Park is not really one you want to do, especially when pitch black; it can often be an area for hostility but we nipped through no problem. Anfield itself is currently undoing some redevelopment work to increase the main stand by 13,000 and bring the total capacity to around 57,000. Whilst I have little love for the place, the floodlit cranes towering over the ground did look quite impressive at night. Into the ground though, where United had an allocation of just 2,800, pretty similar to what we receive for domestic league games with no boosted cup allocations; UEFA rules state 5% of the capacity but in fairness to United they did fight to get more than the 2,200 they’d initially expected.
After so much excitement and anticipation during the couple of weeks build it up, it was inevitable that something wouldn’t go right. Unfortunately it was the whole United teams performance. We often underwhelm at Anfield, nicking a few wins over the past few years, but there was no luck to be had on this occasion. A penalty in the first half beat De Gea who was our clear man of the match, making some top saves to keep the score down before being beaten for their 2nd towards the end of the match. Our end was a little flat at times, perhaps uninspired by what we were watching, there was probably more noise at the end as a few United legends Irwin, Pallister and Cole were outed, stood together amongst us. Jesse Lingard was also hiding a few rows behind us be he sneaked off just before the end of the match. We had a 20 minute hold in before making our way to a few shuttle buses which were running down to the station; though the 2 mile walk back to the city centre isn’t too unbearable, it’s not so pleasant after a defeat, certainly not at 10.30 in the evening. Thankfully we just made it for the last train back to Manchester where a fair few post-match drinks were needed to try and make sense of what had gone on.
With the return leg just a week away, to be played on St Patrick’s day in Manchester, there’s only a short time for the players to pick themselves up and really gear up for a strong performance. A 2-0 away loss means we need 3 goals in normal time to turn it around – 4 if Liverpool manage an away goal. I’d hope that this isn’t my last blog entry for the 2015/16 season, it’s a lot to ask but Old Trafford will be ready for it.
Total travel costs: £14
Miles travelled: 90
Match ticket: £38
Average cost of pint: £2.60
United Allocation: 2,800
Result: Liverpool 2: United 0
Match played 10/03/16