Carabao Cup quarter-final: 15 years on, can Jurgen’s youth emulate Rafa’s reserves?

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Liverpool are in the midst of facing three competitions in three different countries over the last 11 days. They will need more than a strong first XI as resources, legs and duvets will be stretched to the limit.  

The Club World Cup is the only competition that the Reds have never won despite three final appearances where they have not scored a single goal. Jurgen Klopp doesn’t feel the need to be the “first on the moon” but this is an opportunity for his men to write another chapter in Anfield folklore. 

The cost of this dizzy December is that Klopp had no choice but to leave the kids home alone.

MORE: Liverpool ace officially ruled out of Club World Cup semi final vs Monterrey

Well, that is not strictly true. Under 23s manager Neil Critchley will be in charge for the Carabao quarter-final trip to Villa Park tonight, the day before the big boys take to the pitch in Doha against Monterrey.

“I think we’ve got nothing to lose, we’ve got nothing to fear and we just have to see it as an opportunity,” Critchley said of his young charges. Judging by their fight and composure in the 10-goal thriller against Arsenal, that really is the case. Arguably, that night has a resonance that will override everything that follows. The trip to the Midlands is a free hit in many ways.

Despite the heroics against the Gunners’ teen clan, perhaps even the most optimistic Reds fans might doubt that Rhian Brewster (fitness permitting), Harvey Elliott,  Jones and Neco Williams can do it all again this evening

However, there is a precedent for the Reds to survive this situation,  albeit one that didn’t involve their first-team squad travelling 3400 miles to the Middle East.

In his first season, 15 years ago , Rafa Benitez was facing a similar dilemma. A League Cup quarter-final against Tottenham away from home was sandwiched between league fixtures and a do or die outing on match day six of the CL group stage. Sound familiar, Reds fans?   

The Spaniard took his team to White Hart Lane midweek for the Carling Cup tie having just stung Arsenal with academy product Neil Mellor’s dramatic last-gasp 35-yarder. Mellor would play a pivotal role the following week against Olympiacos on a famous Anfield night.  Saving his big guns for that memorable December evening, the Reds boss decided to ring the changes and start with several of his fringe players in North London.

In came the unfamiliar names of local lad David Raven (who would win man of the match that night),  Texan-born 20-year-old Zak Whitbread, a 23-year-old Stephen Warnock, who would later play for England, as well as  19-year-old Irish midfielder Darren Potter and feisty John Welsh in midfield. There were important cameos for winger Mark Smyth and relative veteran Richie Partridge, a 24-year-old who is now a physio at the club.

Tottenham’s full-strength team had the likes of Michael Carrick, Ledley King and Robbie Keane  while Liverpool’s youth was slightly offset by first-time keeper Jerzy Dudek and other more experienced pros such as Igor Biscan and out of favour Stephane Henchoz. Even so, it looked like a languid walk  in the Lane for Martin Jol’s side.

For 108 minutes, Spurs poured forward but were profligate, finally making the breakthrough when Jermain Defoe came off the bench to score past Dudek. Inexplicably, with just three minutes remaining, Frederic Kanoute decided to jump, rugby lineout style, in his own penalty box, handling the ball to give Liverpool a lifeline. “I have seen it on television and it’s even more unbelievable,” Jol said of Kanoute’s intervention afterwards.

The Reds main danger that night had come from a French prodigy Gerard Houllier had recruited. 20-year-old Florent Sinama-Pongolle had impressed in the European Under-16 Championship and the FIFA Under-17 Worlds but his big nights were few and far between. On this occasion, he beat Paul Robinson and then did the same in the shootout to put Liverpool into the semis. 

Liverpool’s academy had struggled to provide the first team with a notable senior player since Steven Gerrard’s debut in 1998. Benitez restructured by bringing coaches who had  worked at Barcelona’s famed La Masia complex. They were shocked at what they saw as the inadequate facilities. “The under-18s had no centre forward, no balance. They had no tactical level, no understanding of the game,” said youth coach Rodolfo Borrell, now at Manchester City.

After a bleak decade, the academy is thriving again. In addition to Trent Alexander-Arnold, the emergence of Ki-Jana Hoever, Brewster and Jones is testament to that. As Alexander-Arnold said after making it six in Madrid: “I’m just a normal lad from Liverpool whose dream came true.” Next summer, the first team and future will move together on one site for the first time in the club’s history at Kirkby.

Whatever the result, tonight, Liverpool are well on the way to the next wave of success…

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