Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool are back into the UEFA Champions League’s knockout rounds after his young Reds beat Ajax 1-0 on Tuesday.
The German boss has overseen a lot of impressive European displays since he took over the Merseyside powers, but says this one had a special feel due to the work of kids.
It’s easy to see why.
Klopp got a star show out of fill-in goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher while teenagers Neco Williams and Curtis Jones teamed up for the lone goal as Liverpool moved four points clear of the Anfield visitors.
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Given Group D’s congested status heading into the game and Alisson Becker joining the list of injured Liverpool stars that already included Virgil van Dijk, Thiago Alcantara, and Trent Alexander-Arnold amongst others, this was a big win.
“Honestly since I was at Liverpool that feels like one of the biggest Champions League nights,” Klopp said. “Without supporters in, it was the most important, most difficult, most exceptional.”
Klopp took some chances with his team on Tuesday, none bigger than the choice he made after star goalkeeper Alisson Becker was unable to play through a late injury.
The manager opted for 22-year-old Caoimhin Kelleher in his first Champions League start over veteran Adrian, who had appeared in the Europa League with West Ham and UCL with Liverpool (though he played a big role in the Reds’ exit at the hands of Atletico Madrid last season).
“I really think Adrian has done a fantastic job for us, he kept a lot of clean sheets, played everywhere,” Klopp explained. “But now we needed the natural football playing ability of Caoimhin Kelleher. He is a good shot-stopper as well. We made that decision but you never know how they are going to cope. I am really happy with how calm he was and how good he was.”
As for the player himself, Kelleher tried to play it cool but admitted that his social circle couldn’t help but amplify the occasion.
“That’s what I’m there for, I work every day in training to make sure I am ready and I was able to make a good few saves,” he said. “We are not here to take part, the young players want to push and play as many games as we can. … My phone has been hot since I got in tonight, thanks for all the support.”
Our Man of the Match was Williams, an honor buttressed by the knowledge that Klopp yanked the Welsh teenager out of a weekend loss to Brighton at halftime.
That led Klopp to move James Milner to right back, and Milner was injured in the second half versus the Seagulls.
With Alexander-Arnold still hurt, Williams was back on the right against Ajax.
“We had a long talk with Neco Williams this week, we think he has more in the locker than he has shown so far,” Klopp said. “The season started after a difficult summer with lockdown, a short pre-seaosn and then Trent Alexander-Arnold is out. … Neco was not in the best shape but he’s on the big stage – tonight he showed glimpses. He can be so much better still.”
Liverpool can now relax and sent the kids to Midtjylland next week. Given Tuesday, there’s no reason to think they won’t win.