The battling displays of Liverpool’s youngsters ensured the Reds remain in the hat for the FA Cup 4th round draw despite being held to a stalemate against League Two side, Exeter City.
It was a tie that had banana skin written all over it for Jurgen Klopp’s depleted Liverpool, who had everything to lose and little to gain at St James Park.
The sense of desperation for the young Reds to become the first Liverpool side to suffer a cup ‘shock’ at the hands of fourth tier opposition in the clubs history was overwhelming in Devonshire.
But on an intense and challenging night, Klopp’s makeshift and youthful side – featuring only three senior players – held their own, producing a courageous and encouraging performance against Paul Tisdale’s Grecians.
Rising to the occasion
Such was the level of inexperience in the group, with five players handed debuts, Christian Benteke comically made captain.
Pleasingly for Klopp, no one shirked the pressure-filled occasion, with the senior trio of the Belgian, Adam Bogdan and Jose Enrique outshone on the night by the youths, who took their chance to impress the German manager.
At the back, Connor Randall – whose only dampener was allowing Tom Nichols to run off him for Exeter’s opener – and Brad Smith impressed with their all-action style in defensive and attacking play, while Ilori cut a composed – if unfit – figure alongside the dozy Enrique.
Against a strong Exeter midfield, Cameron Brannagan and Kevin Stewart competed courageously against their technically inferior but physically superior opponents, especially the latter, who has only just returned from a long injury lay-off.
Alongside the battling duo, Kent and Joao Carlos Teixiera demonstrated their individual talent in flashes without dodging the dirty work, tucking in next to their central partners to pick up loose balls and carry the fight going forward.
Jerome Sinclair – who levelled with an excellent finish for his first senior Reds goal – worked hard up front doing the defensive work of two men, dropping in to help his midfield, alongside being the only striker to carry a genuine threat.
One of the biggest positives came with the impact of recalled loanee and debutant, Sheyi Ojo, who played a huge part in helping the Reds fight back from falling behind to Lee Holmes’ corner that inexplicably beat Bogdan, with the teenager’s cross falling to the adventurous Smith who smashed home his first senior goal.
It typified the spirit and talent of the youngsters that goals and assists came from themselves – without relying on their seniors to make the difference – with Klopp recognising as such by resisting the urge to introduce Lucas or Adam Lallana.
A big night in first team action, the stars of tomorrow would have benefited hugely from the tough experience faced against Tisdale’s men.
Learning to deal with the pressure of playing for Liverpool Football Club would have been the real invaluable lesson, especially when the fixture was so heavily stacked for them to be nothing more than the fall-guys.
As well as dealing with the weight of being favourites, coping with the physical battle against seasoned professionals – despite the gulf in class – will have provided a welcome toughening up exercise and boosted fighting spirit, something that has been lacking from the first team squad all too often.
Being denied the chance to play the perfect game as desired on a bare and bobbly pitch, having to adapt to the situation and avoid defeat by being resilient and grinding it out, was also a positive test to overcome for Klopp’s prospects.
In doing so, the German will have discovered who is up for the fight as well as boasting the talent for future consideration, on a night of many learning curves for both players and staff alike.
It was a night that that the kids proved they’re alright, and they certainly will have earned Klopp’s trust for future outings with the battling display.
All deserve the opportunity to finish the job in the replay at Anfield, something the Reds boss confirmed post-match is likely to happen, with the need to reserve his regular first team squad for more important fixtures.
Options like Ojo – who came on and made a real positive impact – and Smith, once again, proved their capability of being able to contribute to first team matters now, and Klopp may consider drafting the pair in for involvement in upcoming games with injuries ravaging his squad.
Positively, none of the young players coming into the side let the manager down, and all should be proud of the performances they put in on a tricky night in difficult circumstances.
After all, it was down to their own good work that the Reds can look forward to Monday night’s fourth round draw.
EXETER 2-2 LIVERPOOL
RATINGS: Smith MOTM, but Bogdan flops
TALKING POINTS: Youngsters outshine senior trio
OPINION: Youngsters with spirited showing
FAN REACTION: “Well done kids”
TACTICAL: Klopp tweaks in-match to get draw
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