In the end, it was a victory for Brazilian flair over Belgian belligerence as the class of Philippe Coutinho, rather than the recklessness of Marouane Fellaini, ensured Liverpool progressed to the Europa League quarter-finals at the expense of Manchester United last night.
Jürgen Klopp’s team will take their place in today’s draw for the last eight because they simply wanted it more than their bitter rivals, who ended the game fortunate to have 11 on the pitch despite the best efforts of Fellaini to throw his arms and elbows into anyone wearing a Liverpool shirt.
Little wonder that Ryan Giggs, the United assistant manager, cut an agitated figure on the touchline. His team were schooled by Liverpool and taunted by chants of “Scholesy’s right, your team are shite”, as they exited a competition few at Old Trafford appeared to want to be in.
United now face Manchester City in the Premier League at the Etihad on Sunday knowing that a defeat will all but close another route into next season’s Champions League. Not that they deserve to be there on this evidence.
Liverpool, meanwhile, who triumphed 3-1 on aggregate after Coutinho cancelled out Anthony Martial’s penalty opener, can now contemplate returning to Europe’s top table by winning the Europa League.
Off-field relations between the two sets of supporters had taken a further nosedive during the first leg at Anfield, with a vocal minority in the United contingent singing Hillsborough-related chants to goad their Merseyside rivals.
A banner draped across a bridge at the Liverpool end of the M62 last week also carried the message “Manc Bastards”, so it was perhaps inevitable that retaliation came in the form of another banner, saying simply “Murderers”, hanging from a bridge on the approach to Old Trafford.
Chants outside the stadium from both sets of supporters, referring to Hillsborough and the 1958 Munich air disaster – which took the lives of eight United players – injected a further unsavoury element to this meeting between English football’s most distinguished clubs.
The decision to move this game from its original 6pm kick-off time to 8.05pm was taken in order to diminish the threat of disorder, but the chanting continued inside the stadium before the football finally began to claim centre stage in the early stages of the first half.
Prior to that, the opening skirmishes were largely centred on Fellaini and Emre Can, with the two midfielders renewing the battle which had ended at Anfield last week with Fellaini appearing to elbow the Liverpool player in an off-the-ball incident.
Can could count himself fortunate, however, that the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic waved away United appeals for a penalty on eight minutes after the German had shoved Fellaini in the back inside the penalty area.
United claimed that the award of a penalty to Liverpool in the first leg, following a tug by Memphis Depay on Nathaniel Clyne was soft, and this one was perhaps a stronger appeal.
Still, it was not given and Fellaini was at the heart of the action again two minutes later when he escaped punishment for a stray arm in the face of Roberto Firmino. Fellaini has always walked a tightrope with flailing arms but he got away with it.
United, without the injured Ander Herrera, settled into the game quickest, though, and they dominated the first-half, with Jesse Lingard forcing the first save from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet with a header from Marcos Rojo’s 18th-minute cross.
Juan Mata then shinned a volley wide from six yards as Liverpool battled to keep the home side out, but United continued to press, with Marcus Rashford and Martial linking well before the French forward shot over from 12 yards.
Liverpool were falling into the trap of defending their lead rather than going for the kill and they sat too deep, inviting United forward.
Aside from two efforts from Coutinho, one of which brought a fine save from David De Gea, Liverpool were impotent until Martial put United ahead.
On this occasion, referee Mazic did point to the spot after Martial had been tripped by Clyne and the United forward stepped up to convert the spot-kick past Mignolet.
Old Trafford shook, but United still needed one more to level the tie and Daniel Sturridge almost put it beyond them when he rattled the crossbar with a 35th-minute free-kick.
Jordan Henderson then wasted a golden chance to level on the night when he shot over from 10 yards after being set free by Coutinho.
Coutinho was Liverpool’s best hope of a breakthrough, with the Brazilian offering Jürgen Klopp’s team the pace and invention in the final third that Mata was unable to provide for United.
He was knocking at the door and, after both Rojo and Firmino had gone close to scoring in the dying seconds of the first half, the Liverpool No 10 hauled his team level and left United needing a further three goals to progress.
It was a killer goal in every sense, but it was also one of the highest quality. Guillermo Varela, United’s Uruguayan right-back, has done well in recent weeks after being promoted to the team by Louis van Gaal owing to a defensive injury crisis, but he was outdone by Coutinho on numerous occasions before the Liverpol playmaker scored.
Coutinho simply ghosted past Varela as though he wasn’t there in the 45th minute, but faced with De Gea he did not panic. Instead, Coutinho coolly lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net to put Liverpool firmly in control of the tie.
Coutinho’s goal ended the tie as a contest and United simply stumbled through the second half, with Fellaini missing the best chance when he shot over after being teed up by Rashford.
Liverpool just coasted to the draw which took them through, and deservedly so.
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