Man United, Liverpool cross Europa frontier

LONDON: The 122-year-old rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United enters uncharted territory on Thursday when they meet at Anfield for the first leg of their Europa League last 16 tie.

After 194 encounters in domestic competitions, dating back to 1894, the fierce foes from England’s northwest are crossing swords on the continental stage for the first time.

Both Liverpool and United would rather be in the Champions League — they have been European champions five and three times respectively — but with neither team assured of a top-four finish in the Premier League, they may need to win the Europa League in order to reclaim a place among the continental elite.

United manager Louis van Gaal has contested suggestions that both clubs are in decline, telling journalists at Wednesday’s pre-game press conference: “You live in the past.”

“How many titles have Liverpool and how many titles have Manchester United?” he asked. “It was another time. You have to live in the present.

“This happens in football. It’s normal. It’s not normal that one team dominates for 20 years in a row as champions.”

Currently sixth in the Premier League, United have not yet given up hope of a top-four finish, but Van Gaal will be conscious of how damaging elimination at Liverpool’s hands could be.

The Dutchman has won all four of his previous encounters with Liverpool, including home and away wins in the league this season, and his side appeared to have turned a corner recently, winning four games in a row.

But Sunday’s 1-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion cut them three points adrift of the Champions League berths — having played a game more than fourth-place Manchester City — and thrust Van Gaal back into the spotlight.

Liverpool are three points below United with a game in hand after coming from behind to win 2-1 at Crystal Palace, having previously claimed a measure of revenge for their penalty shootout loss to City in the League Cup final with a rousing 3-0 win over Manuel Pellegrini’s men.

But whereas United also remain alive in the FA Cup, ahead of a quarter-final clash with West Ham United at Old Trafford on Sunday, the Europa League represents Jurgen Klopp’s last chance to end his first season as Liverpool manager with a trophy in his hands.