In the week when Fenway Sports Group offered a potential glimpse into the future off the pitch for Liverpool, a number of youngsters did the very same on it.
And how fitting that the Reds’ defence of the Carabao Cup began in the exact same way it was won in February: via a nerve-shredding penalty shootout where Caoimhin Kelleher was the hero.
The Irishman has only played 18 times for Liverpool but four of those have been successful penalty shootouts. His total of six saves from 12 yards is now a club record to boot. It’s quite the specialist subject the former Ringmahon Rangers keeper has mastered.
This goalless draw with Derby County will not live too long in the collective memory for anything other than the fact that it was likely the first opportunity that so many supporters had been given to get a real look at some of the hopefuls making their way.
The fourth youngest Liverpool team of all time saw as many as eight players aged 21 or younger involved, with six of them starting. And while the decision to place so much faith in those without any real prior experience is always fraught with risk, so many of the fledglings can count their lucky stars they have a manager in Jurgen Klopp who is fearless when it comes to trusting in youth.
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“The young players will never let you down – never!” said Pep Lijnders earlier this year. “As long as they have heart and they play with our values – as long as they are humble – they will always get a chance and that is a huge part of our success over the past few years.” Once more that was proven here as the young Reds edged yet another shootout to keep alive their hopes of a 10th League Cup.
In the same way it did 14 months ago when the first steps towards Wembley were taken at Norwich, the visit from Derby offered Klopp the chance to show the wider world more about the talented teenage crop at the Kirkby Academy.
For Conor Bradley, Kaide Gordon and Tyler Morton in 2021, read Melkamu Frauendorf, Bobby Clark and Stefan Bajcetic in 2022. Layton Stewart was also given the nod to lead the line as the impressive Calvin Ramsay made his full debut after his summer switch from Aberdeen.
Liverpool’s best chance of an ordinary first period fell to Stewart when Clark had won it high up the pitch. Fabio Carvalho’s subsequent cross was just behind the striker and he could only lift it into the Anfield Road end from about 10 yards out.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain almost broke the deadlock in fortuitous circumstances shortly after the restart, but his deflected shot from long range was pushed away by Joe Wildsmith, who spent most of the match trying to run down the clock in the hope of penalties, in the Derby goal.
Darwin Nunez, Harvey Elliott and Roberto Firmino were all sent on with more than 25 minutes left to play for Clark, Frauendorf and Stewart, providing the injection of senior quality that was needed.
Ben Doak then became the fourth youngest player to represent the Reds in this competition when he joined the action for the ineffective Carvalho just two days short of his 17th birthday. The young Scot was lively in his short cameo, always willing to run at the Derby defence every chance he got wide on the right. He is another with a bright future, surely.
A dogged Derby eventually got what they came for as the full-time whistle sounded for penalties but Liverpool know their way around the spot-kicks these days. After Kelleher had made three saves, it was left to the outstanding Elliott to fire his team into the fourth round.
This competition will always struggle to get near the Premier League or Champions League when it comes to the list of priorities, but that doesn’t mean it’s not viewed as important inside Klopp’s inner circle. And while the EFL Cup may only offer the relatively paltry sum £100,000 for the winners, it does, as a result, provide the chance to get a closer look at just who is emerging fast up the production line. Evidently, there’s a few.
Last season proved that with a fair wind and a kind draw, Liverpool have the resources to be able to rest and rotate for the earlier rounds of this competition and still have enough in reserve to make it towards the latter stages, when the squad’s more high-profile names will be asked to take part.
And given the lack of real jeopardy to the season’s overall aims when it comes to the Carabao Cup, it allows supporters to enjoy a brief reprieve from the stresses and strains of the action elsewhere, particularly at a time when the league campaign is going nowhere near as planned.
With Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton and West Ham all out at the third-round stage, there should be no fear for Liverpool when the draw for the fourth is made. Their hopes of winning this tournament once again are as strong as ever. Especially with Kelleher in goal for the shootouts.