Louis Van Gaal has called Manchester United’s Europa League Round of 16 clash against bitter rivals Liverpool “bigger than ever.”
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On Thursday the Premier League giants lock horns at Anfield in the first leg — remarkably, their first-ever meeting in European competition — and with both teams struggling to finish in the top four of the PL this season, they know winning the Europa League perhaps presents their best chance of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League next season.
The winner of the Europa League gets a spot in the UCL group stage for next season.
Van Gaal, 64, has a tremendous record against Liverpool as United’s manager, wining all four Premier League encounters since he arrived in 2014.
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Ahead of this clash, Van Gaal knows that even if both teams would rather be in the UCL, the fact that this game is in Europe’s second-tier club competition doesn’t make a difference to the fans.
“You have to win – there is no difference [with it being a Cup competition],” Van Gaal said. “United and Liverpool is always a big game. It’s historical and even bigger now because both teams are fighting for a Champions League place.”
Van Gaal was also asked about the decline of both teams in recent years and if the fact they’re battling in the Europa League instead of the UCL is a reminder of the demise.
He asked the media: “How many titles does Liverpool have? How many titles does Manchester United have” as he couldn’t resist a little dig at United’s rivals before stating that with six PL teams still left in the knockout stage of both European competitions, it shows how strong the PL is.
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With both of these games sell outs at Anfield on Thursday and Old Trafford next Thursday, a ferocious battle in the North West of England will take place for a spot in the Europa League quarterfinals.
Injures continue to plague United with Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ashley Young still out plus Cameron Borthwick-Jackson will also miss Thursday’s game and Jesse Lingard is suspended. Antonio Valencia is back in training and could make the bench, while Juan Mata can play in European games despite being red carded last weekend.
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United have also been given special dispensation by UEFA who normally state that if clubs are based more than 27 miles apart then they must travel to away city the day before the game and use the training facilities. However United’s request to remain at their Carrington training base, which is just 34 miles from Anfield, was accepted by UEFA and they’ll treat this like a normal game.
Well, as normal as a Liverpool vs. Manchester United derby can be, anyway.