LIVERPOOL’S Academy has come a long way in a short space of time. Standards have been raised since Frank McParland was appointed by Rafa Benitez three years ago and tasked with kick-starting the Reds’ production line.
The Academy director has overseen sweeping changes to the set-up and progress has been swift.
Yet if anyone at Kirkby was in any doubt about how far they still have to travel it was graphically highlighted by Tuesday’s NextGen Series semi-final against Ajax.
It was a chastening experience for Rodolfo Borrell’s Liverpool youngsters at St Helens’ impressive Langtree Park.
For half an hour it was a decent contest as the Reds recovered from conceding an early goal and took the game to the visitors.
Spanish winger Suso wasted the chance to equalise from the penalty spot and after that the gulf in class was exposed.
Some of Ajax’s passing and movement was breathtaking. Physically stronger, technically superior and ruthless in the final third, they ran riot in the second half.
Danish youth international Viktor Fischer, who claimed a hat-trick, and skipper Davy Klaassen caught the eye as the 5,000-strong crowd were treated to a masterclass from the Dutch outfit.
They led 6-0 with 20 minutes left on the clock but thankfully the hosts dug deep to avoid any further punishment.
“Ajax have got some special talents,” admitted McParland.
“As a team they kept the ball so well with their one touch passing.
“We matched them in the first half and if we had put away the penalty it would have been a different game at 1-1. But we can’t get away from the fact that they were much better than us on the night. They were so clinical and took their chances brilliantly.
“No-one likes losing that heavily but we have to hold our hands up and say they were a lot stronger.”
The inaugural NextGen Series, essentially an under-19s Champions League, has undoubtedly filled a gaping hole in European youth football.
With Sporting Lisbon also inflicting two heavy defeats in the group stage (3-0 and 5-1), it’s been a baptism of fire for Liverpool against the continent’s elite.
But McParland believes the experience will prove to be invaluable for both players and coaching staff alike.
“It’s been really beneficial and we have learned so much about our own players,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s easy to stay in your own comfort zone, play teams around you, keep winning and tell everyone how great you are.
“But we’ve been desperate to play against top foreign opposition and that’s why we were so quick to sign up to the NextGen.
“If you want to really test yourself you need to play against the best and it’s been an unbelievable opportunity for us.
“Highly talented technical teams like Sporting and Ajax have had the edge over us.
“Those two clubs and the likes of Barcelona have been working in a fantastic way for 15 to 20 years. That’s underlined by the fact their academies have produced so many players.
“We’ve progressed and it’s not all doom and gloom here but there’s no doubt we’re playing catch-up on them. We have to try to get to that level.
“Games like Tuesday make you realise we have still got a lot to do. Everyone has to learn from it. The players need to learn and it’s the same for the coaching staff.
“We will continue to work with them to get to a higher level.”
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