Liverpool clinched their place in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday night, with a 1-0 win over Ajax suggesting that certain youngsters are ready to step up.
Jurgen Klopp made five changes for the visit of the Dutch champions, with the Reds knowing at least a draw would book their place in the knockout stages.
A victory, courtesy of Curtis Jones‘ second-half volley, was more than enough, and with Atalanta drawing at home to Midtjylland, Liverpool are now guaranteed to advance as group winners.
It was another hit-and-miss display from the Reds, but the output of those brought in – namely the three academy products, Jones, Neco Williams and Champions League debutant Caoimhin Kelleher – provided much cause for positivity.
Here, This Is Anfield’s Jack Lusby (@jacklusby_) discusses a crucial win for Liverpool with Owen Collins (@OGBCollins) and Irish football journalist Jonathan Higgins (@Jhiggins3).
JACK: What a response from Neco, what a debut from Kweev, what a performance from Curtis.
But beyond the youngsters, I’d like to focus on Firmino’s cameo as a positive that will likely be overlooked in the aftermath of the win.
It’s been a difficult period for Bobby but he came on and looked near his best: his touch was excellent, his movement inspired and the weight on his passes was back to perfection.
He certainly could have ended the game with at least an assist, and perhaps even a goal-of-the-season contender had he been able to steer his finish a fraction further away from Onana after a wonderful team move.
OWEN: It really was one of those 1-0s that was as satisfying as a 5-0, mainly due to the fact that we started (not for the first time this season) without enough fit players to make up a full matchday squad.
The kids are getting the lion’s share of the praise, which is justified.
Jones, in particular, has done such a sterling job so far this season, becoming almost a first-choice starter.
His rise has been aided by those above him dropping like flies, but he’s never once looked out of place, and on last night’s performance, those returning will have a fight on their hands to get their spot back.
Neco deserves credit as well; he didn’t do anything earth-shattering but had a quietly comfortable 90 minutes which will hopefully silence the brainless section of our fanbase who seem to think he’s a Welsh Phil Degen. Cracking assist, too.
Finally, it might go unsung because he has throughout his entire Reds career so far, but Matip is starting to show his class once again, marshalling the makeshift back five with composure and for the most part barely putting a foot wrong.
JONATHAN: While it was vital to get back to winning ways it was even more important last night given this crazy fixture and injury vortex which we are currently embedded in.
On a night of many highs and feel-good subplots it can’t be underestimated the significance of in effect making next week’s tie with Midtjylland a dead-rubber.
It effectively allows Klopp to concentrate fully on the league until mid-February.
JACK: I’d like to flag Robbo’s fitness as a concern after this game.
Given he went down more than once in the first half and needed extensive strapping on his left foot, I was so surprised to see him play the full 90 minutes.
Perhaps it says something of Klopp’s faith in Tsimikas at present, but allowing Robbo to maintain his record for the most minutes clocked of any Liverpool player so far this season, despite the obvious fitness issue, is a worry.
Granted his options were slim, and it was a hugely positive result for Liverpool in the end, but I had expected Tsimikas and Taki to come on for Robbo and Gini at the least.
Instead, Klopp only used two of his five subs – one being in the last minute!
OWEN: I know we’re all probably either relieved or euphoric (or both) over last night, so we can overlook the slice of luck in Jones’ match-winner, but that aside, I found our hesitancy in front of goal frustrating.
Too often, Salah, Mane and even Jota broke into brilliant positions but either took a touch too many, or a second too long, and gave Ajax’s (admittedly pretty decent) defence time to regroup or recapture.
We were fortunate that even if we had conceded we would still be in the last 16, and so putting the game to bed wasn’t essential.
Nevertheless, there will be games when, for the sake of both our title challenge and our collective nervous systems, we’ll need more than a one-goal cushion, and will need our strikeforce to start mercilessly taking their chances again.
JONATHAN: Like Jack, it was another cover your eyes moment for me when Roberson when down injured in the first half – thankfully he was able to continue.
And as Owen has explained, on a night where so much went right and everything worked out in the end, the game should have really been put to bed long before the inevitable late Ajax flurry.
A number of big opportunities were squandered in the second half to secure that all-important second goal.
All’s well that ends well, however.
And should Kelleher be Alisson’s new backup?
JACK: Yes, definitely.
He may be inexperienced, but Kelleher has been training with the first team for a long time now, and crucially has been training with the Alisson brief.
The difference between Kelleher and Adrian is stark – the former is perfectly suited to the style Klopp demands, and the latter saps the confidence of those around him – and Klopp effectively confirmed his decision after the game.
There will be speedbumps, and Sunday will be a big test if he starts against Wolves, but plumping for the 22-year-old Kelleher, who can only improve further, over a 33-year-old Adrian, who is out of contract in July and unlikely to develop past this point, is the right call.
OWEN: Look, I’m a big fan of Adrian – there’s at least one trophy in our cabinet that wouldn’t be there without him – but watching Kelleher last night was one of those moments that come along every couple of years where you feel you’re seeing the start of something.
Comfortable with the ball at his feet (which is an upgrade on Adrian), confident coming out and catching (which is an upgrade on Adrian), and seemingly unfazed by the occasion, it was a brilliant performance.
There were one or two hairy moments – a slightly reckless rushing out midway through the first half – that should serve as a reminder for everyone concerned not to get carried away.
But whereas the likeable Spaniard is (with respect) approaching the twilight of his career, Kelleher is the opposite.
Without going all Lion King about it, last night will have given him a taste of what he could achieve with the correct application and mentality.
All he needs now is opportunities, and with Alisson’s current flakiness, there will be a few more of them yet. Time for our 62 to become our No. 2.
JONATHAN: Obviously given my green-tinted glasses I’m going to say yes but it was interesting to see Klopp so open post-match and publicly revealing his reasoning.
It’s a cliche but the way the modern game has evolved and especially with our style of play a goalkeeper comfortable with the ball at his key is essential.
Despite been pressed regularly by the Ajax attackers Kelleher looked composed, often passing the ball out under pressure with his weaker left foot.
It was a throwback really to his Ringmahon Rangers days where he started off playing as a No. 10. The Kennedy Cup is a renowned U14 competition here in Ireland. Over the years a lot of Irish internationals have played here and been spotted by the large number of scouts who are frequently in attendance.
As usual, Kelleher was due to play in his regular No. 10 position. However, just seven weeks before the competition was due to start their regular goalkeeper quit the team. Aged 14, Caoimhin in own words “put up his hand and gave it a shot.”
It turned out to be a hugely beneficial move as he proceeded to have a highly impressive Kennedy Cup between the sticks.
From here on his goalkeeping career flourished and his performances were a key part in securing the U16 league for his club. In the league decider, he put in what his club describe as a “masterclass and a night we’ll never forget” and which “proved he was made of the right stuff.”
Last night, over 400km away at Anfield, Kelleher put his hand up again on the biggest stage of his career to date and certainly had a night that he will never forget.
You always have to err on the side of caution with young players’ development, particularly with goalkeepers, but the signs look good.
The Premier League can be brutal for goalkeepers especially with the aerial bombardment of some sides.
Over the years we have a witnessed ‘keepers with a lot more experience than Kelleher struggle to adapt in these conditions, but from watching him closely over the years it’s certainly something he has been working on.
Time will tell, but everyone associated with Liverpool and particularly the large volume that have Irish roots will be hoping that last night proved again that he was made of the right stuff again.