Liverpool were floundering in the heat of an Old Trafford cauldron last night, their two-goal first leg lead burning up fast. Enter Philippe Coutinho.
The Brazilian playmaker’s attacking threat was always likely to flourish against a Manchester United defence which still has something of a makeshift air about it.
When he got the chance to run at that back line, he certainly made the most of it. True, Guillermo Varela looked like a rabbit in the headlights when confronted by Coutinho’s pace, and David De Gea was certainly culpable as he was beaten at his near post.
But it was Coutinho’s positive approach that caused that panic. He might have had more than one goal; but one was enough to ensure that Jurgen Klopp could enjoy a relatively comfortable night.
Marouane Fellaini was fortunate to be eligible for the second leg after appearing to catch Emre Can with an elbow late in the first leg last week.
The midfielder kept his place in United’s midfield for the return – — with Morgan Schneiderlin dropping out to make way for Michael Carrick — but his biggest contribution was again with his flailing arms.
Fellaini flattened Roberto Firmino with one early aerial challenge that went unpunished, and then got away with a booking in the second half when he poleaxed Dejan Lovren.
The Croatia centre-back was left with a sore head, although he will probably feel it was worth it as he looks forward to a quarter-final tie.
As for Fellaini, he did not threaten nearly enough in the opposition’s penalty area, save for one second-half header that Simon Mignolet saved.
Burnley midfielder Joey Barton has rarely been short of an opinion or two during a colourful career, and he came up with a striking description of Mamadou Sakho’s playing style after last week’s first leg.
Barton suggested that the Liverpool centre-back was “the most unorthodox, efficient, unbalanced, effective defender on the planet”, and compared him to a clown spinning plates, adding: “You are just waiting for them to smash on the floor. Yet, somehow he keeps it going.” Sakho did look a little uncertain at times during a tough first half. But he demonstrated his class with a perfectly-timed challenge on United striker Anthony Martial after the break.
Sakho was key to keeping United at bay as they pressed after the interval. Even Barton would have to concede that.
A telling statistic about Louis van Gaal’s team selection last night: Of his five major outfield summer signings, only Anthony Martial started arguably his side’s biggest game of the season.
Perhaps the most telling omission was that of Memphis Depay, who has rarely hit the heights during a tough first season at Old Trafford.
The winger has turned in his best performances for United in the Europa League, and was outstanding as Midtjylland were swatted aside at Old Trafford in the last round, but was poor at Anfield in last week’s first leg, and paid the price by being left on the bench for the return.
The question now is how Memphis, who has made little impression in the Premier League this season, will find a way back in.
United’s most impressive performer was one of their youngest players.
Anthony Martial’s positive running had Liverpool’s defence panicking at times, and it was one such dart that forced Nathaniel Clyne into conceding the penalty that briefly gave United hope of rescuing the tie.
Martial has fully justified the fortunes that Van Gaal spent to bring him from Monaco.
And even though the United boss has frequently insisted that the France forward is one for the future, his continuing good form in the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney suggests he is very much for the present.