A bunch of Liverpool up-and-comers stepped in for rested stars like Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk and didn’t miss a beat in Sunday’s FA Cup third-round match against city rival Everton, beating their blood enemy 1-0 at Anfield on a stunning second-half goal from 18-year-old Curtis Jones:
It was also a costly win, as veteran fullback James Milner — one of the few regulars in manager Jurgen Klopp’s starting lineup — had to be substituted just nine minutes into the contest after suffering a non-contact leg injury.
It was an impressive performance nonetheless. Despite new Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to field close to a full-strength 11 rather than rest some of his starters for the business end of the Premier League season, the Reds fully deserved their victory.
For while the visitors were probably the sharper team (and undoubtedly produced the more dangerous scoring chances) in the first half, the young Reds imposed themselves and made a statement in the second, dragging Everton’s winless steak in Merseyside derbies at Anfield into its third decade.
The outcome could’ve been different had backup Liverpool backstop Adrian, who spelled No. 1 Alisson Becker in this one, not made three jaw-dropping saves during the opening stanza:
But some nerves from the green hosts were to be expected. Along with Jones, Klopp started fellow 18-year-old Neco Williams, recent transfer Takumi Minamino, and Harvey Elliott, who at just 16 years, 276 days became both the youngest Liverpool player to appear for the club in the FA Cup and to appear for the Reds in a Merseyside Derby.
It didn’t take the newcomers long to prove that they came to play, though. And while there might have been a few off touches at times, or an understandable lack of cohesion, the intensity of the match was exactly what fans around the world have come to expect from one of the sport’s great grudge matches:
Make no mistake: Losing Milner is a significant blow. But in a way, it also justified Klopp’s decision to insert some fresh legs in place of some weary ones.
Reds fans always want to field their first-choice side against Everton. But after a two-week spell during which the Reds have been playing about once every three days, including a trip to Qatar where they won the FIFA Club World Cup title, it was a call with the bigger picture in mind.
Milner’s steady play and understated leadership have been a big part of the Reds’ success over the last three seasons. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be out. But losing the likes of Salah, Van Dijk or Sadio Mane would’ve been worse, even if it already appears that the runaway Prem leaders are a lock to take home their first English title since 1990 this season.
No wonder. After the understudies showed what they’re capable of when called upon, it’s hard to see any number of injuries derailing Liverpool’s destiny.
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