Liverpool dazzle in derby win, will Champions League dream become a reality?

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LIVERPOOL — Under the bright lights of Anfield on a cold midweek evening, you could be forgiven for thinking one of those famous European nights had once again descended on Liverpool.

After a scintillating performance from the home side against their closest rivals for the top four — and their rivals from under a mile away across Stanley Park — saw Liverpool smash four past Everton and reminded their Blue neighbors why they’ve been the top dogs on Merseyside for so long.

With their biggest derby win since 1982, Liverpool are now four points ahead of fierce rivals Everton in the hunt for Champions League soccer. And now the Reds are just six points off the top spot.

The big question on everyone’s lips is: can Liverpool, the five-time champions of Europe, qualify for the Champions League once again?

“We’ve shown all season that we are going to be in contention for a top four place,” Rodgers said. ” We know there are going to be one or two other teams fighting for it. We’ve shown a wonderful team spirit here and we’ve had various players missing at various times, but we’ve been able to structure the team that we aren’t reliant on any one player. That’s the ethos of the team.”

Despite a superb team display, Liverpool needed a catalyst to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. The man that did that has been the leader for many years, and he did it once again with ease. It was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Steven Gerrard epitomized Liverpool’s spirit and drive to succeed from his central midfield role during the 222nd Merseyside derby.

In the early stages of the match the game ebbed and flowed as both sets of fans roared on their teams with a crescendo of noise flowing down from the stands. It could have gone either way. Then Liverpool’s captain emerged to score his eighth goal in the Merseyside derby since the Premier League began.

(MORE: Liverpool 4-0 Everton – Sturridge double seals scintillating Merseyside derby win)

Gerrard rose highest in the penalty box in the 22nd minute to head home powerfully and set Liverpool on their way to a resounding win on so many levels. As Gerrard wheeled away in jubilation, his pupils narrowed and the sheer ecstasy was clear for all to see on his face. Liverpool’s captain fantastic had set his side on their way, and the hometown hero had delivered on the big stage once again.

“I think if anyone questions whether he can play that role, he has played 32 games now in the derby where he has been all-action, and obviously his influence on these games has been wonderful,” Rodgers said. “But he was equally as good tonight from that deeper position. You see his responsibility in the role, he organizes the team on the field. He scored a goal. He lead the team marvelously well and was outstanding tonight.”

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Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard celebrates his opening goal as Anfield erupts.

Gerrard’s powerful header sent his side into overdrive, with Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling inspired by their skipper’s statement strike. They ran rings around Everton’s makeshift defense, as Sturridge struck twice before half time, to take his tally to 16 for the season, and put the game out of the Toffees reach. Then Suarez scored his obligatory stunner after the interval, his 23rd of the PL campaign which beats his tally for the whole of last season, as he ran from the halfway line and calmly finished to hammer the final nail in Everton’s coffin.

When they play like this, the Reds are unstoppable.

Full of panache, swagger and purpose, on their day Liverpool showed they can beat anyone. It wasn’t as if Everton did much wrong in the opening 45 minutes, Liverpool were just that good. With tireless workrate from Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in the middle feeding tricky attackers Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge, Liverpool’s midfield obliterated Everton with a ruthless team display of high-pressing. Amongst all that, the defense held firm to preserve the shutout.

“It was a brilliant performance,” Rodgers mused. “A real good defensive organization, outstanding on the counter attack and clinical in front of goal. We scored four goals and could have had two or three more. I’m delighted for the group.”

It was just one win, which earned the home side three points. But will the significance of a big derby win have a positive impact on Liverpool for the final third of the season? Rodgers thinks so.

“All wins are important but especially against your rivals,” Rodgers said. “We are four points clear now of Everton. We know there’s still a wee way to go but psychologically it was a big, big win for us. In terms of confidence it was a big, big win for us. We have to keep our foot to the floor and keep putting in performances and keep scoring goals.”

Liverpool’s attacking quartet of Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Sterling are dazzling when they click but they do leave the Reds at risk on the counter attack when things break down. However, Liverpool were extremely dangerous on the counter-attack themselves as Rodgers noted in his post-game press conference. If the Reds are going to finish in the top four, they need to persevere with this ultra-attacking lineup as they will outscore most of their opponents if they’re anything close to the ruthless outfit they became vs. Everton.

(MORE: Premier League Standings)

With the Reds rampant and Everton’s confidence low — a dejected Roberto Martinez tried to put a positive spin on things after the game but a vast swathe of injuries could halt his sides brave top-four challenge — it was a terrific derby win for the Red half of Merseyside.

Towards the final whistle the famous club anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was belted out by most of the 44,000 fans inside the stadium. If you closed your eyes and sensed the buzz and anticipation inside the stadium, it felt like a famous European night had arrived back at Anfield.

After a stunning display which will fill Liverpool will confidence for a top four push for the rest of the campaign, next season European nights could well return.

For Rodgers’ side there’s no need to dream. If they keep doing what they do best and perform like this, Champions League soccer will be played on Merseyside next season. This derby win proves it’s now Liverpool’s fourth spot to lose.

Solskjaer warns “could have been one of those nights” for Manchester United

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clearly relieved after his dominant but wasteful Manchester United finally beat goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and Copenhagen in extra time of their Europa League quarterfinal in Cologne.

“I think it was just one of those nights,” he said after the win. “I think we deserved to win, that’s clear, but they made it very hard for us.”

Johnsson made 13 saves as United out-attempted the minusM-1000 underdogs from Denmark by a 26-9 margin. The Red Devils blocked several Copenhagen chances in tight, making the Danes’ total of zero shots on target a bit deceiving.

[ RECAP: Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen ]

“Their keeper was unbelievable and we hit the post a few times,” Solskjaer said. “It could have been one of those nights that you end up with a shootout. We had to block, defend well and they made it hard for us.”

But United was clearly the better team on the day, as expected. Juan Mata entered late in the game and was an influential sub in extra time.

He says the Red Devils were a bit beat up on a hot night in Germany.

“The team is quite tired physically,” Mata said. “At this stage of this season it is important to win games like today and we go through. We stay in Germany for quite some time and hopefully we can win.

“Both teams got a little tired and there were more spaces and more chances. They played some good football and credit to them. We could have scored more goals in extra time but we are through.”

United will meet either Sevilla or Wolves in a dynamite semifinal in one week.

Manchester United breaks through Copenhagen in extra time

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Manchester United – Copenhagen: The Europa League’s biggest underdogs of the quarterfinals took the tournament favorites to extra time before succumbing 1-0 in Cologne.

Bruno Fernandes highlighted his Man of the Match performance by converting an Anthony Martial-won penalty in the 95th minute for Manchester United, the only way past Copenhagen’s terrific goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

But Fernandes gave United a scare, needing care for his hamstring at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Johnsson made 13 saves, seven from inside the box, to keep Copenhagen within a sucker punch of eliminating the Red Devils over 90 minutes.

Manchester United heads to Dusseldorf for an Aug. 17 semifinal against the winner of Tuesday’s tilt between Wolves and Sevilla.


Three things we learned

1. Copenhagen plays prime tournament soccer: The heaviest underdogs in the quarterfinals, Copenhagen executed a traditional 4-4-2 in a less-traditional low block for much of the match. The low block wasn’t the surprise, but instead of two banks of five, the rows of four with two men hassling up front challenged United for time and helped spring a number of dangerous counters. The Danes opened up in extra time after going behind, but taking it to extra time was more than many expected out of them.

2. VAR denies the Red Devils: A rout would’ve been on if this match was staged a year ago without VAR, as the assistant referee twice allowed United goals to go to video. Harry Maguire was offside before assisting the first would-be Red Devils goal, while Mason Greenwood was off before ripping a rocket off the far post and into the goal.

3. Bruno is a beast: Fernandes was everywhere, cueing up his teammates for chances when he wasn’t smashing them off the frame in a bid to win it himself. The Portuguese playmaker registered three key passes, put three of his five shots on target, and won the majority of his duels on top of scoring the game’s lone goal (SofaScore). Now United must hope his late leg injury was just a product of 120 minutes and nothing major.

Man of the Match

Fernandes, and yes we had him here before he smashed his penalty home. Fernandes is now the Europa League’s leading scorer with seven goals between Sporting Lisbon and United.


Manchester United – Copenhagen recap

United has plenty of the ball in the first 10 minutes but Copenhagen provided legitimate danger that Eric Bailly managed in his own six.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked a cross with his face and needed treatment, looking quite dazed before returning to the game.

Another Copenhagen chance was blocked in the six by Bailly (again), who proved a wise choice over Victor Lindelof.

VAR had a look at an early United goal and rightly chalked Harry Maguire offside in the build-up. And it took Mason Greenwood’s hammer off the far post off the board for offside early in stoppage time.

Copenhagen was in it at the break. Would United pay?

[ MORE: Lukaku leads Inter past Bayer Leverkusen ]

The early stages of the second half remained with the Red Devils, Copenhagen parking all its men behind the ball at times.

Rashford flubbed a chance to shoot or pass to Paul Pogba when Bruno Fernandes spotted him at the back post just after the hour mark.

Fernandes tried his luck from distance in the 63rd, ripping a shot off the far post.

Ex-Everton man Bryan Oviedo nearly put Copenhagen ahead in the 66th only to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bailly clog his shooting lane after Rasmus Falk dazzled to get into the box.

Karl-Johan Johnsson made a flying save on Anthony Martial to force an 84th-minute corner that came to nothing for United.

Johnsson denied Martial again in-tight at the start of stoppage time, but the high was short-lived as the Frenchman was dropped in the box moments later.

Fernandes stepped to the spot and used a stuttering run-up before blasting his penalty home.

Martial nearly had it 2-0 after the restart when he dribbled through the Copenhagen 18 but took it himself instead of laying off to Juan Mata in what would’ve been a fairly straight-forward chance for the Spaniard.

Johnsson denied Fernandes at the end of the first 15 minutes of extra time, United unfortunate to not score on the ensuing corner when Mata’s shot was blocked to Lindelof, who fired off the outside of the post.

Lindelof made a fine intervention to block a close-range equalizer bid in the 116th.

Inter Milan rides early goals past Bayer Leverkusen

Inter Milan - Bayer Leverkusen
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While Manchester United and Copenhagen played chess across the country, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen were staging double jumps all over a checkerboard in Dusseldorf.

Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella scored twice in six first-half minutes before Kai Havertz answered in the 24th to account for all the goals in Inter’s 2-1 defeat of Bayer.

Lukaku has scored in nine-straight UEL matches, a new record.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Inter now waits for an Aug. 16 semifinal in Cologne, where it will meet the winner of Tuesday’s match between Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk

Bayer now must settle for the Europa League again via its fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga.

The three goals in the nine minutes were highlighted by Lukaku doing his best “Harry Kane versus Leicester City” falling down finish.

Nicola Barella put Inter ahead after a quarter-hour when he made the most of a loose ball outside the 18.

A Manchester United connection saw Inter ahead by two when Ashley Young found Romelu Lukaku and the Belgian striker maintained his composure while being dragged to the ground, beating Lukas Hradecky with a low shot.

Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland’s interplay near the box ended with the transfer rumor mainstay slipping a shot home to bring Bayer back within one.

Lukaku had penalty decisions taken off the board by VAR in each half.

Who’s next for Manchester United if Sancho stays at Dortmund?

Chiesa to Manchester United
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The transfer rumor mill is usually buzzing this time of year, but it’s nearly a cacophony following Michael Zorc’s announcement that Jadon Sancho will be staying at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Reports say Manchester United is not quitting on the idea of Sancho at Old Trafford, but here are some other targets if the Red Devils have to look away from the English phenom.

Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina

Linked with United for some time including a Monday nod from Football-Italia, Chiesa’s approximately $80 million price tag is high but half of what Dortmund is asking for Sancho.

The versatile playmaker has often been linked with Juventus, though Fiorentina is loathe to do business with The Old Lady unless absolutely necessary after big sales of Roberto Baggio and Federico Bernardeschi to Juve in the past.

The 22-year-old already has 17 Italian caps and scored 10 goals with six assists for La Viola this season in Serie A play, career bests in both.

Douglas Costa, Juventus

This one could become even more feasible if Juve latched onto Chiesa.

Juve desperately needs to get younger and Costa doesn’t figure to fit into the plans of Andrea Pirlo, a month away from his 30th birthday.

Costa works better on the right side and would be a worker bee looking to set up Rashford and Martial or cut back for Bruno Fernandes. He boasts double-digit assist seasons in the Bundesliga (Bayern), Serie A (Juve), and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk).

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 19: Douglas Costa (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Raul Jimenez, Wolves

This one still feels like a long shot of long shots given the players’ age and status at Wolves, but the El Tri star has been linked with United in the past.

Jimenez doesn’t solve the wing issue presented by Sancho staying at BVB, and you’d fancy the Red Devils to go after one of Wolves’ wingers before Jimenez.

But Solskjaer enjoys Marcus Rashford at left wing and could use Anthony Martial at right wing a bit more often than center forward. Throw in Mason Greenwood and the boss would have a lot of permutations to use around Bruno Fernandes in a front three or four.

Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan

Mentioned as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, that’s less on the cards after the Chilean accepted a Man United payoff to move to Inter for free.

The 31-year-old favors the left wing and Inter would be happy to offload him after Bayern declined its option to buy the loanee who managed seven goals and 10 assists in just over 1600 minutes.

That’s pretty good output for a part-time player who kept some tread on the tires.

Perisic to Manchester United
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15: Ivan Perisic of Croatia (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, Real Madrid

If you’re sensing a thread amongst most of these players, it’s no surprise considering United has a wage scale to meet the needs of many wantaways.

Real desperately wants to get something for Colombian star James, who at 29 played less than 800 minutes for La Liga’s champions this season.

His two-year loan stint at Bayern also saw him as a part-time player, but like Perisic a productive one. James scored 15 times with 20 assists over two seasons with the Bavarians.

Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich

This would cost a lot of dough.

The 24-year-old has been a part of nine-straight league winners between Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Bayern.

Okay that’s cheating a bit considering his Ligue 1 crowns came off a handful of appearances over two seasons at the Parc des Princes.

But the left and right winger might be on for a change of scenery with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane set to dominate the preferential places at Bayern.