03/04/2021|15:00| LEIGH SPORTS VILLAGE|SUNSHINE
The final whistle was met with an outpour of emotion, embraced team-mates and most welcoming, a prolonged breathe of relief. Liverpool under 18’s kicked, clawed and climbed their way to a deserved 1-0 victory against Manchester United, earning an FA Cup 5th round tie against Leicester City. Perhaps too literal from James Norris, who was sent off deep in to the second half.
A talented Manchester United team, who had twice bested Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s side already this season, poked and prodded Liverpool’s backline that with defending both intelligent and heroic, remained unpenetrated.
It was backs against the walls in the truest sense.
Manchester United’s intent was clear – Evident not only from a promising opening flurry, but from the personnel drafted. A number of U23 regulars in Joe Hugill, Will Fish, Alvaro Fernandez and Hannibal were all called up for the showcase occasion that had an added edge of a famous rivalry.
If that wasn’t enough firepower for Neil Ryan, Shola Shoretire, Manchester United’s youngest ever player to to feature in Europe started on the left.
A quiet afternoon then.
The high-tempo opening 10 minutes wobbled Liverpool’s ship with Koumetio and captain Quansah called in to action more than preferred. The two pronged attack of McNeill and Hugill looked to wreak havoc as Neil Ryan had seemingly organised a co-ordinated press lead by the pair, to be accompanied by the likes of Hannibal and Shoretire with the impressive Svidersky to pick up the pieces.
McNeill had the ball in the back of the net as early as the 4th minute finding himself in space all too easily after a loose ball was picked up in Liverpool’s third before poking in to Harvey Davies net. A warning.
Hannibal was United’s catalyst. Everything positive went through him, starting on the left and flitting infield. The bite in United’s attack. (sorry). A drive inside quickly forced Koumetio in to a decisive block.
Liverpool struggled to play out from the back initially, with United’s organised press and the lack of a real outlet as Koumetio was nearly caught in possession by Shoretire on the edge of his box. Liverpool needed to gather their bearings or trouble loomed.
Liverpool slowly eked there way in to the game. The lack of a natural number nine did hinder Liverpool at times, who looked disjointed going forward. But they had survived an early United onslaught, quelling any threat.
Proceedings quickly quietened with too many turnovers in the middle of the park followed by redundant possession.
It was around the 15 minute mark when The Young Reds began to muster up some patterns of their own.
James Norris was Liverpool’s main architect in the first half with the Scouser showing his proficiency in both attacking and defensive phases. A growing partnership with Musialowski continued with the two linking on the left for the Liverpool’s first shot of the game. Several other long range efforts left United unbothered although the momentum had slightly shifted.
And finally, the ball arrived at Norris’ feet in the inside left channel.
A gorgeous cross found an onrushing Tyler Morton running behind the last man saw Scouser supply Scouser as he headed home from close range. A goal made in Liverpool.
And thus the match was set. Liverpool had something to defend – and did so admirably.
Liverpool retreated back deeper in to their half and set up their stall. But this was much more intelligently managed that of the second half with a real lack of need for bodies flying in front of the ball and goal line clearances. Thankfully. The ropey moments of the opening sequences were long gone with Koumetio and Quansah growing in stature and aerially dominant. Luca Stephenson expertly screened the defence with fellow midfielders, Morton and Corness supporting fullbacks to restrict United to wide areas.
United were frustrated but Liverpool still needed to be on high alert as Charlie McNeill and Joe Hugill only need half a chance between them to score. Hannibal continued to threaten up against Conor Bradley to little avail. Even the highly regarded Shoretire faded out of the half with James Norris breathing down his neck. A frustrated Hugill would stray deep with a lack of United central presence. Perhaps an attacker too many.
United were blunted and Liverpool would go in at half time with a lead to defend in a game that was far from over.
The opening ten minutes had already usurped the entire first half action. Liverpool again retreated in to a deep shape and United did not let-up. The on pitch diamond of goalkeeper Davies, Koumetio, Quansah and Stephenson will not have busier afternoons for a long time.
United looked to primarily attack the inside channels in-between fullback and striker and had relative success. The opening exchanges saw the ball pinball its way around the box resulting in a Conor Bradley goal-line clearance. Shoretire and Hannibal huffed and puffed but crosses and passes all failed to come in to any meaningful contact and were often swept up Koumetio and Quansah, if not Harvey Davies.
The longer United threatened, the less concern Koumetio and Quansah had for their bodies. Long range United efforts often were met by head, leg, shin or face if needed. The duo were determined to keep a clean sheet aided by Stephenson, often rushing out wide to clean up a loose ball.
Openings continued to appear for United but Davies was left untested. Shots from Hannibal and a Hugil header simply fell in to the hands of the keeper or with a vital tackle.
Liverpool needed industry from players who are often lauded for their attacking prowess. Musialowski and an ever tiring James Balagizi were often found in the unusual territory of plugging in their own defensive third in a bid to stop their arch-rivals recycling possession to record a famous win.
Unfortunately, Liverpool’s task significantly increased in difficulty as the tackles spilled fly.
78 minutes in, Norris, in a desperate attempt to win the ball high up the pitch to catapult a rare attack, lunged for an unwinnable loose ball. It didn’t take long for the referee to make up his mind. Red Card.
Fortunately, Liverpool had enough to hold on. Just. For his efforts, Luca Stephenson had pulled up with cramp as players began to tire. Marc Bridge-Wilkinson rang the defensive changes as Lee Jonas and Sean Wilson entered the knife-edge tie. It would be Wilson who made several clearances to deny United joy in the box. While Liverpool created little of their own, in essence, so did United.
The job was done in what was a real team effort. We saw a different side to Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s team. Grit, heroism and fight. Liverpool were arguably the underdogs with key players injured, and United’s talent on show.
A famous victory for the academy. On to the next round.
STAND OUT PLAYERS
All of the backline will be pleased with their performances today. Imperious.
Jarell Quansah: Not only did Quansah aerially dominate two of the most highly regarded attackers in the country in McNeill and Hugill, but he also managed other players to follow suit. Usually praised for his on-ball ability, Quansah showed why he is captain today. Ever vocal and ever strong in the duel. Koumetio falls in to this bracket too, but Quansah’s management tips him.
Luca Stephenson: A busier second half ensured that Luca had chance to finally stand out. Plugged in the gaps expertly while making a number of lung busting challenges deep in his own box. Supported the full backs and also snuffed the danger out of his own area.