Man United vs. Liverpool not devalued by Europa League setting - Van Gaal

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has hit back at critics who have said his club and Liverpool should be meeting in the Champions League not the Europa League, urging people not to "live in the past."

Two of English football's oldest rivals meet in the round-of-16 first leg at Anfield on Thursday, and Van Gaal hit out at what he described as "a negative view" of the competition.

Speaking at a news conference, he said: "I noticed that you have a negative view, but against teams like Midtjylland there were how many fans? There were 58,000. The fans of Manchester United are appreciating it.

"How many fans do you think we'll have against Liverpool? I think maybe 75,000. I think also Liverpool is sold out.

"It's very important for both teams, and the fans are liking to see the duel between us."

United and Liverpool have won three and five European Cups/Champions Leagues respectively, as well as amassing 38 league titles, but Van Gaal argued that their presence in the Europa League was a sign of strength in English football.

The Dutchman said: "It's not normal that one team is dominating for 20 years in a row.

"It was another time. You live in the past. You have to live in the present. Other teams are in the Champions League.

"It's a signal that the Premier League is strong because several clubs are still playing in the Europa League.

"You have to win -- 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 is targeting a fifth win in a row against Liverpool -- the first time United would have achieved that -- but was quick to stress that the Merseyside club are an opponent rather than "an enemy."

"Then I am in the books with a positive record [if United secure a fifth victory]," he said. "It's curious we have beaten Liverpool so many times under me, but it's good for me as the appreciation is higher from the fans."

Asked whether Liverpool were an enemy, he added: "I don't think like that. I think they are an opponent, and we want to beat that opponent.

"I think football in England is very deep in the life of the people. It's fantastic to see that.

"It is also sometimes what I can see too much [of], but I like to see it because you can see the heart of the club and also the feeling that they are with you, every game."

Chris Smalling made his return to the United team in the defeat at West Brom on Sunday after a shoulder injury.

The England defender said the intensity of the match would fuel United, adding: "It's a game we all look forward to, and one in which we need to stand up and be counted."