It just wouldn’t be Liverpool without a bit of drama, would it? Their Carabao Cup journey last season ended with a penalty shootout, and so it was perhaps inevitable that their defence of the trophy this term would start in the same fashion.
Once more it was Caoimhin Kelleher who was the hero, the Ireland international goalkeeper saving three shootout penalties as the Reds edged past League One side Derby County to secure their place in the draw for the fourth round, which will take place on Thursday.
Kelleher has now won more shootouts than any goalkeeper in Liverpool history (four), saving six spot-kicks along the way, as well as scoring what proved to be the decisive one in last season’s final against Chelsea.
The 23-year-old is, according to Jurgen Klopp, “the best No.2 goalkeeper in the world,” and while that is a hell of a compliment, the question may soon be whether Kelleher is happy with the role of backup, and if another club would be prepared to make him their first-choice. Liverpool would be able to command a more than decent fee, if so.
The Carabao Cup, clearly, is Kelleher’s competition, and for Klopp, whose side have been indifferent in the Premier League so far this season, Wednesday night presented an opportunity to take a look under the bonnet, to see what kind of young talent is coming through at Anfield.
That policy has worked well in recent years. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harvey Elliott, who scored the winning penalty against Derby, were first blooded in the competition, while in recent seasons the likes of Tyler Morton, Conor Bradley, Neco Williams and Kaide Gordon - who missed out on a reunion with his former club here due to injury - were all given chances to further their prospects and reputation.
It was no different this time around, as Klopp named the fourth-youngest starting XI in Liverpool’s history, a team containing six players aged 20 or under, including one, Layton Stewart, who was making his professional debut.
Stewart, a striker from Stockbridge Village who has been with the club since the age of seven, might have marked his big night in memorable style, but snatched at a first-half chance on his left foot from Fabio Carvalho’s cross.
Still, 66 minutes for the first-team at Anfield represents a dream come true for the 20-year-old, who has shown serious courage to battle back from a serious knee injury suffered last year. The hug he got from Klopp when replaced by Darwin Nunez was both moving and deserved.
Nunez was one of three senior players brought on to try and force the win, and while both Elliott and Roberto Firmino injected tempo and quality - Elliott, in particular, was outstanding - it was another substitute, and another precocious young talent, who sparked the most post-match conversations.
At 16 years and 363 days (his birthday is this Friday), Ben Doak became the seventh-youngest debutant in Liverpool’s history when replacing Carvalho, but his 16-minute cameo suggests we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of the Scot in the coming years.
Academy regulars know all about Doak, who signed from Celtic in the summer in a £600,000 ($700,000) deal, and against Derby he simply underlined his talent, grasping the opportunity to announce himself to a wider audience.
There is nothing better than watching a young footballer play without fear, and Anfield purred as Doak got down to business, delighting fans with his confidence and willingness to run with the ball time and time again.
That’s his game, dribbling, and he showcased it perfectly here, giving Louie Sibley, Derby’s left wing-back, nightmares with his ability to skip past on the outside. Doak finished having both attempted and completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch, and having had more touches in the opposition box than any player bar Carvalho, who played 74 minutes, and Kostas Tsimikas, who played 90.
“That’s Ben,” smiled Klopp in his post-match press conference. “His instructions were easy: do what you do all the time. He’s really a lively boy, a smart player, good dribbler, fast, can use both legs.
“He’s good! It was nice to watch, eh?”
It most certainly was, and Scottish fans had another reason to be enthused by what they saw from Liverpool, with Calvin Ramsay impressing on his first start since his £4.5m ($5.1m) switch from Aberdeen in June.
Liverpool hope the 19-year-old can provide both competition and cover for Alexander-Arnold at right-back, and this was a good start in that regard. Ramsay had received his first call-up to the senior Scotland squad earlier on Wednesday, and he capped a good day with an assured performance against Derby in the evening, solid defensively and ultra-composed in possession.
He completed more passes (105) than anyone else on the field, and his 94 percent accuracy was bettered only by Kelleher, among those who started the game. Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain attempted more shots, and only Stefan Bajcetic regained possession more often.
Bajcetic was another teenager making his first Liverpool start, and the 17-year-old showed plenty of courage to step up and take his side’s first penalty in the shootout. The Spaniard’s effort was saved by Derby goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith, but there was enough in his performance, as a holding midfielder, to show why assistant manager Pep Lijnders described him as “a present from the academy” at his pre-match press conference.
Bajcetic can pass the ball better than he did here, but his reading of the game, for one so young, is outstanding, and he clearly has personality and self-belief in abundance. His progress should be watched closely.
So too should that of Bobby Clark, a dynamic presence in midfield against Derby, and a player who has already made big strides since joining from Newcastle last year. The 18-year-old’s father, Lee, had a fine professional career, and Clark has already had a taste of Premier League football at Liverpool. He is the kind of player coaches love; hard-running, two-footed, confident and versatile enough to play in at least three positions. If he can mature physically, the Reds will have an interesting prospect on their hands.
All in all, then, a good night’s work and an enjoyable one for supporters, despite the lack of goals. Few things excite fans like potential, and this Liverpool squad has plenty of that. It’s fine to be excited by that.
Especially if you happen to be Scottish.