Seven goals, and not a Salah, a Mane or a Firmino in sight.
Liverpool’s front three were given the night off on Thursday, but Jurgen Klopp’s side didn’t suffer. Without their star trio – and a host of other first-team regulars – the Reds sauntered into the fourth round of the Carabao Cup with an eye-catching 7-2 victory away to League One pacesetters Lincoln.
It was a good night for Klopp’s back-up boys. Liverpool’s squad depth has been the source of much concern, even as they have risen to the top of the European football over the past three seasons, but the Premier League champions look stronger now than they ever have – an ominous sign, indeed, for their rivals.
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Curtis Jones, 19 and growing with each passing week, scored twice and took home the man of the match award. The teenage Williamses, Neco and Rhys, both completed 90 minutes in defence, while Kostas Tsimikas enjoyed a promising debut at left-back.
In midfield, Marko Grujic impressed on his first Reds appearance in almost three years, while 17-year-old Harvey Elliott helped create two goals from right wing. Divock Origi, for so long the Reds’ go-to stand-in, rounded off the victory with his first goal of the season.
It was the form of three others, though, which will most encourage Klopp. In Xherdan Shaqiri, Takumi Minamino and new signing Diogo Jota, he might just have found his ‘other’ front three, one which could save him some major headaches as this most unique season progresses.
Shaqiri set the ball rolling at the LNER Stadium, his ninth-minute free-kick curled to perfection past Lincoln goalkeeper Alex Palmer, kissing the underside of the crossbar on its way in.
The Swiss international’s class is well-known, but it was nice to see it in the flesh for once. This was Shaqiri’s first start for Liverpool since the Club World Cup semi-final in Qatar, all the way back in December.
Minamino has seen more action, and all the signs suggest that the man brought in from Salzburg in January is starting to feel right at home. The Japan star grabbed Liverpool’s second goal, a fine first-time finish from 20 yards, and their fifth, following up smartly after Elliott’s shot had been saved.
Bright, busy and intelligent, he capped his display by sending Origi away for No.7 in the dying stages. He looks a Klopp player, in just about everything he does.
So too Jota, introduced as a second-half substitute. Not the most high-pressured of debuts for the new arrival – Liverpool led 5-0 when he replaced Elliott – but there was encouragement to be found in the way the £45 million man slotted into his new team, and he was not far away from a first Reds goal himself, with a right-footed effort which whistled just past the post.
Huge promise, then. For so long Liverpool fans have worried about what will happen if any of their forward players pick up a knock, but they look to have strong replacements available this season – even if none, naturally, can boast the sheer relentless numbers of Salah or Mane’s unrivalled touch and physicality from the left.
“Everybody used the opportunity to show up, that’s very important,” said Klopp afterwards.
“Who will play this season, that’s not decided yet. My door is always open. Who shows the desire we saw tonight, who shows the attitude we saw tonight, who shows so many things that I like and we want to see when a Liverpool team shows up, then there’s a big chance you’ll get a lot of games during the season.”
Minamino and Jota, clearly, have a role to play going forward, but it will be interesting to see whether Shaqiri remains at Anfield when the transfer window closes next month.
Sources have told Goal that, as things stand, there is no plan to sell the 28-year-old, but that could change if a suitable offer is received.
Shaqiri managed only 11 appearances last season – and only three of those were starts – but remains a high-class option, either wide on the right or, as he was against Lincoln, as an attack-minded central midfielder.
“It was a super game from Shaq in a quite, I’m not sure, unfamiliar position – slightly deeper in midfield,” said Klopp. “He did it really, really well.
“There is no doubt about Shaq’s quality, there never was, and in the moment everything looks really, really good, it looks promising. We will see.”
“I loved Taki’s game tonight, to be honest,” he said. “It was absolutely outstanding and involved in so many situations.
“More and more, I think we all realise where his qualities are.”
With Jota – “a pressing monster”, according to assistant manager Pep Lijnders – to be integrated fully, with Thiago Alcantara on board and with the likes of Jones proving they are ready to play a big role this season, Klopp suddenly has a few fresh headaches to deal with.
Liverpool’s squad is showing its teeth.