This game was played on a perfect surface at the beautiful venue of Villa Park, whatever happens tonight the players would enjoy that much. But, there was a feeling pre-game that this kind of stage would suit our players.
The first 10 minutes of the game were a real struggle for possession and ascendancy. Both teams fully believed they were the better side and could control the other. It’s not often you get to watch a game with such qualities in modern professional football, so it was intriguing from the off.
It was Liverpool that created the first opportunity however. Conor Coady played the ball out to Raheem Sterling on the left, who beat Joshua Webb for pace, got to the by-line and delivered a low cross directly to the feet of Nathan Eccleston in the 6-yard box. Eccleston had an open goal to aim at and tried a back-heeled flick, sending the ball agonisingly and astonishingly wide. The ball came quite quick at him, so I can only assume he could not get his feet sorted out and it was a bit of ad-libbing, either way, I doubt he will ever do it again.
Liverpool began to look increasingly comfortable in the game, although Villa were seeing more of the ball. Liverpool looked very well drilled and was forcing Villa to play long balls.
We got our reward on 27 minutes when Suso shrugged off his marker out wide, came inside and played the ball to Michael Roberts who drove at the space between the midfield and defence. Roberts run forced Derrick Williams in the centre of Villa’s defence to come out to block him. Roberts simply played the ball into the space that Williams had vacated, Eccleston greeted the ball; took one touch to compose himself, opened his body, and another touch to slot it in the corner, across Benjamin Siegrist in goal.
It was brilliant play from Roberts; I want to see him develop that as a constant into his game. And the finish from Eccleston more than made up for his miss earlier, it was a model of composure.
After the goal, Liverpool took control of the game, which coincided with Suso coming in from his wing more often, designating Ryan McLaughlin with the job of manning the entire wide right side of the pitch (ala Dani Alves).
Case in point, on 38 minutes, Liverpool have the ball and are knocking it around the back four, when Coady picks it up and looks to change the pace (2nd gear to 3rd); playing it into the feet of Suso (3rd to 4th), who cuts inside and puts it into 5th, headed towards the box. Such is Suso’s confidence right now; he hits a rasping endeavour from all of 30 yards. It beat the Swiss ‘keeper, but alas, also the post. (And park the driving analogies).
Four minutes later and Aston Villa are on the break; Michael Drennan tries a slide pass through to fellow Irishman Samir Carruthers, but Liverpool’s captain Andre Wisdom reads the danger like a Biff and Kipper book and recovers possession before carrying the ball forward and delivering an Alonso-esq pass straight into the feet of Nathan Eccleston, out wide on the left.
Eccleston glides past Webb in RB and hits a shot from the edge of the box. Webb manages to make a last ditch recovering tackle just as Eccelston gets his shot off. Regrettably, for him at least, the deflection guides the ball into the path of Suso who has taken up a classic poachers role on the edge of the 6-yard box and hammers the ball high and hard, leaving the ‘keeper with no chance. 0-2.
Shortly after the referee blows up on what has been an epic half of football for Liverpool Reserves.
The second half starts much as the first finished, with Liverpool in the driver’s seat.
Just 2 minutes in and Liverpool’s imposing defender Stephen Sama over-cooks a long ball, which looks to be going out of play in Villas half. Not in Ryan McLaughlin’s area; the fullback sprints from his defensive position, 35-40 yards back, to meet the ball. Managing to [just about] keep the ball in play he uses his momentum to go past the Aston Villa defender, who had travelled a fraction of McLaughlin’s mileage to meet the ball. Bounding into the box he is 1-on-1 with the ‘keeper but unselfishly rolls the ball across the goal to Eccleston whose tame efforts trickles back off the post.
McLaughlin however still hadn’t stopped moving (I’m actually not sure that he can), and with a poachers instinct found himself the first player to react to the ball in the 6 yard box for an easy tap in. His first goal for Liverpool and a well deserved one, not just today, Ryan has been consistently outstanding all season first for the U18s and now the reserves. It leaves you wondering what could be next for the young Norn Irishman?
Peculiarly, the 3rd goal seemed to be the jab in the arm that Villa so needed. Having good spells of possession but failing to convert this into chances.
But Liverpool were still a threat due to the quality of their attacking players. On 61 minutes the ball made its way over to Sterling, wide left, just inside the Villans half. He was being tightly marked by Joshua Webb but with just one touch, he span him and hit the turbo; blazing a trail towards the box.
Dropping a shoulder he feigned to go outside and once the CB had adjusted his turning circle and joined him Raheem came back inside, leaving the comparative HGV for scrap. Before any covering defenders had a chance to react he struck a crisp shot; aimed at but just dipped around the far post.
Raheem Sterling’s new found willingness to actually go outside of his man has made him so much more unpredictable for defenders than this time last year. They just don’t know which way he is going and if they do they cannot stop him. It is a testament to the great work that the academy is still doing with Raheem, something that should not be forgotten at this time.
A defiant Villa side continued to attack nonetheless and they eventually got their reward, albeit in controversial circumstances.
The ball was pin balling around the Liverpool box, Jack Grealish is quicker into the 50/50 than Coady, the two lightly brushed together and Grealish in Claret & Blue stiffened to a plank and plummeted. In short, he dived, it was not as ugly as a James Perch dive, as there was some minimal contact, but he dived.
The Villa skipper, Daniel Johnson, who to me looked the best player for the Villans (and has the coolest hair I have seen in football for a long time!) dispatched the penalty brilliantly. Danny Ward in the Liverpool goal almost got a hand to it, but it was too hard and accurate. 1-3, game on.
The game became scrappy from that point as Villa lost their shape a bit, trying to push forward for goals 2 & 3. And in the 91st minute Sterling’s determination and ever increasing mental fortitude (also, I believe, something to do with his time spent with Rodolfo Borrell) meant he was challenging and winning header on the halfway line at this late stage, with the game won and a full 90 minutes of pressing, harrying and squeezing every bit of spare change out of defenders and deep laying midfielders already under his belt. These actions led to him having en empty Villa half to run into. He was not going to be caught.
Similar to McLaughlin at the other extreme of this half, when presented with the opportunity to score in a 1-on-1 situation, he instead rolled the ball across the face of goal to his team mate. Ngoo was cool in sidestepping his marker who had attempted a last-ditch sliding tackle, and passed the ball into the empty net. 1-4 in added time, game over.
1. GK) Danny Ward: Soild. Did everything asked of him.
2. RB) Ryan McLaughlin: Exceptional. If Ryan keeps his head, he can have a huge future at Liverpool FC.
3. LB) Emmanuel Mendy: Very good again, always reliable when called upon, even when asked to play out of position.
4. CB) Stephen Sama: Solid, again. Becoming that sort of player, which is very good news.
5. CB) Andre Wisdom: Concrete. Made a lot of interceptions which showed exceptional rading of the game for a lad of his age. And his distribution was back to its best (very good)
6. DM) Conor Coady: As good as I’ve seen him for a while; working with the first team is clearly working for him. Excellent work rate and finally got back to dominating the midfield area.
7. RW) Suso: Brilliant in defensive cover and in attacking link-up and final product. He keeps impressing.
8. CM) Michael Roberts: This was the best I’ve seen him play for LFC. Carried the ball well, passed forwards, never let the game pass him by. More of the same please.
9. CF) Nathan Eccleston: Very good performance. Ran everything down for the team and showed his finishing quality with the goal. One slight complaint maybe should have scored more?
10. AM) Krisztián Adorján: Vacant again. Not looking his usual excellent self at the movement. Needs to recapture that form soon with just 3 games left.
11. LW) Raheem Sterling: Not ‘the main man’ as he’s grown used to but his work rate was phenomenal and his quality is undoubted. We have got a special player here.
Don’t forget to come back to The Elite Development Blog for the best independent coverage of all things Liverpool FC Reserve and Academy.