Stand-in boss Neil Critchley will field the youngest team in the club’s 127-year history in the Carabao Cup quarter-final
The price of success will be there for all to see at Villa Park.
In Liverpool’s 127-year history, never will they have fielded a younger, more inexperienced line-up than the one which will contest the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night.
With Jurgen Klopp and his senior squad in Qatar preparing for the Club World Championship, it has been left to Neil Critchley, the Reds under-23s boss, to take on Aston Villa for a place in the last four, live on television.
The 41-year-old has been at Liverpool since 2013, originally as under-18s boss before switching to his current role two years ago.
“I’ll be very proud to lead the team out,” Critchley said at a press conference at Melwood on Monday. “It’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
Nevertheless, the prospect is a daunting one for an Academy coach and his team of Academy players. Villa may be struggling in the Premier League, but they will be at full strength as they look to secure a two-legged semi-final in the New Year.
“Yeah, thanks for reminding me of that!” Critchley laughed.
Liverpool certainly won’t be at full strength. Their team will be made up of teenagers, with senior experience minimal.
In fact, only the precocious summer signing Harvey Elliott and the midfielder Pedro Chrivella, who is likely to captain the side, have played Premier League football before, while Herbie Kane, the player with the most professional games under his belt, has played all-but-one of them at League One level.
This isn’t even the strongest Academy side Liverpool could field. Two of their brightest stars, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones, are in Doha with the senior squad, while home-grown left-back Adam Lewis is sidelined with a knee problem. Yasser Larouci, impressive on the first-team’s pre-season tour of America in the summer, is also doubtful.
So too is Rhian Brewster, the England under-21 striker, who has been struggling with an ankle knock.
Brewster, like Jones, is viewed as a potential star of the future, but is likely to be loaned to a Championship club in January. He was assessed closely when the squad trained at Melwood on Monday, but no risks will be taken with the 19-year-old, who has already had one serious injury in his young career.
Goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher can expect a busy night. The Ireland under-21 international started each of the previous two Carabao Cup ties this season, keeping a clean sheet at MK Dons and saving a crucial penalty in the shootout win at home to Arsenal.
Dutch defensive duo Ki-Jana Hoever and Sepp van den Berg have also featured. Hoever made an impressive debut in the FA Cup at Wolves back in January, and scored at MK Dons in round three, while Van den Berg has senior experience with previous club PEC Zwolle.
Those two, plus Kelleher, Elliott and, if fit, Brewster, are on standby to fly immediately to Qatar after Tuesday’s game. “There’s a flight waiting,’ Critchley confirmed. “But it might depend on how they play!”
As for the rest, his hope is that they show enough of themselves in what will be the most testing of situations.
“The message from the staff will be to go and play like a Liverpool team,” Critchley added. “We’ll be well prepared, we know how we will approach the game. I hope they go and play how I know they can play.”
We can expect a few debutants. Scotsman Tony Gallacher is likely to play at full-back, while Remi Savage, Morgan Boyes and Tom Clayton will also be in contention.
Leighton Clarkson, a dimunitive, ball-playing midfielder, will be in the squad, as will 16-year-old Scouser Layton Stewart, a striker who has been in fine form for Barry Lewtas’ under-18s this season.
Isaac Christie-Davies and Elijah Dixon-Bonner, midfielders recruited from Chelsea and Arsenal respectively, could feature, as could Luis Longstaff, who was on the bench against MK Dons and the high-pressing Jake Cain.
Remember these names; they could be quiz answers in years to come.
“They’ll be outside their comfort zone,” Critchley said. “But they need tough challenges. And whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, the team will take so much from the experience.
“Of course there’s excitement. One game like this is worth a million training sessions.”