Sunday 25 February 2018

Smith equaliser saves blushes for Kindergarten Klopp

Exeter City 2-2 Liverpool

Liverpool’s Ryan Kent battles with David Noble of Exeter City. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Liverpool’s Ryan Kent battles with David Noble of Exeter City. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Jerome Sinclair of Liverpool beats goalkeeper Robert Olejnik of Exeter City to score at St James’s Park. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Exeter City's Lee Holmes celebrates scoring their second goal with team mates. Photo: Reuters

Jason Burt

The FA Cup Third Round announced itself with a raucous, throwback of a tie as Exeter pushed Liverpool all the way to earn a deserved and lucrative replay. The Grecians have their gift.

It could have been more. It could have been the most famous night in this club's 115-year history as they led deep into the encounter only to be clawed back by Jurgen Klopp's young side.

Kindergarten Klopp, in fact, as the Liverpool manager, denied 12 players through injury, turned to a team with an average age of just 22 and gambled that he could get through. Instead he has a replay which adds to a daunting fixture list. To an extent insult was added to injury but it could be a whole lot worse.

It was, quite gloriously, a classic cup tie with Exeter, 16th in League Two, playing with courage and belief and Liverpool hanging on in there at times. There were thrills and spills - with Liverpool goalkeeper Adam Bogdan again at fault.


Klopp had promised an unfamiliar line-up - hamstrung as he is by hamstrings and fixture congestion - but still it raised eyebrows so see an XI quite this callow and inexperienced. They boasted just 135 first-team appearances - with 96 of those belonging to Jose Enrique, the makeshift central defender, and he has been ushered in from the wilderness. It was Enrique's first appearance for almost a year.

There was Christian Benteke also, all £32.5 million of him, to captain the team but after that it was young, it was inexperienced - there were three debutants including Kevin Stewart who had only been recalled from loan at Swindon Town hours before kick-off - and it raised further the possibility of an upset.

There was certainly an even bigger buzz on the Exeter Big Bank - the local equivalent of The Kop - as this tight ground in the city centre was rammed to capacity. Behind the low terrace at the opposite end of the ground people stood in the window frames of the houses behind to crane a view.

It was all set. There was even a hipper hipster than Klopp in the Exeter dugout in the sartorially dapper manager Paul Tisdale - and a huge banner which read: "What we do today echoes in eternity. Make history".

The message was heeded inside 10 minutes. Exeter scored. It came as Jamie Reid sprinted down the right, tearing past Brad Smith and crossing low for Tom Nichols - a 22-year-old product of the club's youth system - to poke the ball past Adam Bogdan at full stretch as Tiago Ilori, on his debut, failed to cut it out.

It was a fine strike but just as the atmosphere cranked up further Liverpool reacted. They pushed on and as the ball rebounded around the Exeter penalty area, with Jordan Moore-Taylor tussling with Benteke, it eventually fell to Jerome Sinclair who, on the 19-year-old's first start for Liverpool, scored his first goal by calmly sweeping his effort low into the corner.

It was well-taken but with a slice of fortune but immediately settled Liverpool and stalled Exeter's gathering momentum. Suddenly youngsters such as Stewart, Ryan Kent and Joao Teixeira were prominent as they picked their way nimbly over the heavy pitch.

But it was Exeter who should have reclaimed the lead when Christian Ribeiro worked his way down the right and did well to deliver a low cross. The ball ran to David Noble who side-footed high over the crossbar, under Connor Randall's lunging challenge, from just 10 yards.

Nine of this Liverpool team had just 18 first-team appearances between them and the scale of the task was becoming apparent when Exeter went close again as the impressive Ribeiro ran on to a deep cross to steer a header back across Bogdan and agonisingly wide.


He held his head. If Noble should have scored then Ribeiro really should have scored. For an Exeter side that had lost its last four matches, who had not reached the third round for 11 seasons this was excellent.

On 45 minutes it got even better when, deservedly, Exeter scored again with an extraordinary goal. It came direct from a corner with Lee Holmes swinging the ball in left-footed from the right only for it to somehow drift over the hapless Bogdan and nestle in the net. If Holmes looked disbelieving then so did everyone else. Exeter were given a standing ovation as they walked off at half-time.

Liverpool came out early for the re-start - no guesses as to why - but were almost caught when Ribeiro appeared to be tripped inside the area. It felt like a big moment but no penalty was, rightly, given by referee Stuart Attwell as the defender had inadvertently kicked his own heel.

Finally an emphatic chance fell to Benteke, who had struggled to be involved, but who then met Teixeira's cross from close-range only for goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik to react superbly and push his header away for a corner. Klopp reacted by bringing on another debutant, 18-year-old Spanish midfielder Pedro Chirivella and sending out Adam Lallana and Lucas Leiva to warm up.

Just as it appeared Liverpool were struggling they struck. Substitute Shey Ojo crossed and the ball was hacked out by Moore-Taylor but only as far as Smith who fired the ball low into the net. Liverpool were now dominant with Teixeira bursting into the area and Olejnik beating his shot away with his legs.

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