Fallen English powers reignite rivalry in Europa League
ABS-CBN Sports on Mar 09, 2016 08:10 PM
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal watches from the dug out during the English Premier League soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United, at the Hawthorns in West Bromwich, England, Sunday, March 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — After decades of playing on Europe's highest stage, Manchester United and Liverpool have fallen on hard times on the field and reignite their rivalry this week at a level they wouldn't have expected to meet.
In the eyes of English soccer, the Europa League is a much-maligned competition — a poor relation to the lucrative Champions League and a grueling slog that damages performances on the domestic front.
But, such are their plights, England's two most successful clubs are grateful to be involved, with the Europa League possibly representing their best chance of a return to the Champions League as the winner qualifies automatically. United and Liverpool are sixth and seventh in the English Premier League, respectively.
So when they meet in the last 16 on consecutive weeks, starting on Thursday with the first leg at Anfield, there's plenty more at stake than just local bragging rights.
"It was another time. You live in the past," United manager Louis van Gaal said on Wednesday when it was suggested that Liverpool and United competing in the Europa League shows they are in decline. "We are happy to play in the Europa League.
"There is no difference — United and Liverpool is always a big game. It's historic and even bigger now because both teams are fighting for a Champions League place."
Liverpool has lost its last four games against United, all in the Premier League, and is looking to avoid an unprecedented fifth straight defeat to its old foe.
"It is good United have beaten Liverpool so many times. It is also good for me because when I beat teams like Liverpool, then the appreciation is higher and bigger from the fans," said Van Gaal, who has been under pressure for much of this season. "So I hope we shall beat them for the fifth time, but more for the fans than myself."
It will be the first time United and Liverpool — European champions a combined eight times — have played each other in European competition, and their game headlines arguably the strongest-looking lineup of teams in the last 16 that the Europa League has seen.
Here's a look at some other games:
Any other year, this matchup between the teams lying second in the English and German leagues would be the highlight of the round.
Dortmund is one of two teams to have reached the Round of 16 of the Europa League from the third qualifying round. The other is Athletic Bilbao.
No German team has won at White Hart Lane.
Tottenham must weigh up whether to go all out to win the Europa League, or rest key players for its bid to win the English league for the first time since 1961. Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has said he is scaling back the intensity of his training sessions to keep his players as fresh as possible, having revealed that star midfielder Dele Alli is playing through ankle and knee injuries.
"We are managing Alli, but not only him," Pochettino said.
Two-time defending champion Sevilla goes to the stadium hosting this season's final for its first leg against Basel of Switzerland.
Sevilla's away record is disappointing this season, and the main reason why it is fifth in the Spanish league, despite notable home wins over Real Madrid and Barcelona.
There's an all-Spanish matchup between Valencia and Athletic Bilbao.
Also, it's Fenerbahce vs. Braga, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Anderlecht, Sparta Prague vs. Lazio, and Villarreal vs. Bayer Leverkusen.