Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back – though his Liverpool return lasted just 41 minutes.
The England international’s last outing in a red shirt came in the semi-finals of the Champions League but here, 11 months on, he was in the more austere surroundings of Derby County’s Moor Farm training complex, turning out for Neil Critchley’s under-23 side in a Premier League 2 fixture.
In front of 100 or so supporters, who had braved the cold, the wind and the rain to see the £35 million man in action, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s afternoon was due to last 45 minutes. It was, however, cut short as he was replaced by Isaac Christie-Davies four minutes before half-time.
He immediately made his way back to the dressing rooms, but was happy enough to pose for pictures and sign a few autographs on his way. Asked whether he was alright, fitness-wise, he replied with a thumbs up and an “all good".
A precautionary substitution, it seems. Oxlade-Chamberlain had appeared to feel his hamstring a couple of times during the first-half, and had noticeably spent much of the game behind the ball, limiting his sprints and forward runs. Liverpool are not about to take any risks with such a prized asset after so long on the sidelines.
Starting in a three-man midfield alongside Connor Randall and Adam Lewis, there were encouraging signs of quality. One ball, fizzed into Ben Woodburn with his left foot, drew applause from the crowd, while another, arrowed out to Ki-Jana Hoever with his right, almost brought Liverpool a goal.
There were smiles as he emerged to warm up before the game, and jokes with his younger colleagues. The likes of Woodburn, Hoever, Curtis Jones and Rafa Camacho, of course, know him well from Melwood, and they applauded in the pre-match shooting drills when he swept a 25-yarder past Caoimhin Kelleher via the inside of the post.
Once the game started, all eyes were on the Liverpool No. 8 – no squad numbers at this level – as he eased his way into proceedings. His early touches were simple, his communication low-key. He pressed wide when he could, but more often than not dropped deeper to get on the ball. He wasn’t always used.
Jones put Liverpool ahead, capitalising on a defensive slip to nick the ball and slot home his first goal at under-23 level. Hoever, the 17-year-old Dutchman, was prominent throughout the first half, getting forward well and being tested defensively too. Lewis, the young Scouser playing in the centre of midfield, showed energy, industry and a good range of passing. He’s one to watch, for sure.
There was disappointment when the fourth official’s board showed Oxlade-Chamberlain’s number, 41 minutes in, but Liverpool's caution is understandable. Nonetheless, a big step is out of the way for Oxlade-Chamberlain. Liverpool will hope there are many more in the coming weeks and months.