THEY say there are no “must win” games in November, but Liverpool’s youngsters are preparing to make a mockery of that particular cliché, as their NextGen Series campaign reaches D-day.
Tonight sees Rodolfo Borrell’s Under-19 side take on Rosenborg at Langtree Park. It is their fourth group game of the season and, having lost their first three, anything less than victory will see them eliminated from the competition.
That would, naturally, be a huge disappointment to Borrell and the Reds’ Academy manager Frank McParland.
Liverpool finished last season’s competition by beating Marseille to secure third place, but have so far struggled to find their feet in this year’s tournament. Beaten 3-2 by reigning champions Inter Milan in their opening game, they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat at Borussia Dortmund before a 3-0 shelling in Norway against Rosenborg last week. They are the only team in the competition without a point to their name.
Why this has happened is open to debate, but there is little doubt that the Reds’ NextGen campaign has been hampered by the fact that many of the club’s eligible young players have been called into first-team action in recent weeks.
Last week’s defeat to Rosenborg, for example, came while Adam Morgan, Conor Coady, Stephen Sama, Suso, Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson were on Europa League duty with Brendan Rodgers’ senior squad in Moscow.
Coady made his senior Reds debut in their defeat to Anzhi Makhachkala, while both Morgan and Flanagan started the game. Suso emerged from the bench in the second half, while Robinson and Sama were unused substitutes. Without them, Borrell’s U19 outfit were no match for a Rosenborg side which has won each of its opening three fixtures.
There were five 16-year-olds in Borrell’s squad, including highly-rated attacking duo Jerome Sinclair and Jordon Ibe.
“It has been more difficult for us this season,” says midfielder Krisztian Adorjan, who will himself miss tonight’s game with a minor knee injury.
“Last season we had a team that was really familiar with one another, and I think that showed in our performances.
“We had all come through the youth and reserve teams together, so we knew how to play together. This season we have not had that in the NextGen games, because players have been away with the first team or on internationals.”
Tonight sees the young Reds return to Langtree Park, scene of last season’s chastening semi-final loss to an impressive Ajax side. Liverpool shipped six goals without reply that day. Several of the Ajax players have gone on to represent the club at senior level in the Champions League this season.
A repeat, of course, is not an option. Liverpool are hoping for a good crowd at St Helens this evening, and an even better result.
The progress of the club’s youngsters has been one of this season’s true shining lights at Anfield, providing genuine cause for optimism amongst Reds fans. Borrell will be hoping their NextGen campaign can be prolonged for a little while yet.
Viktor Fischer (Ajax)
The destroyer of Liverpool in last season's semi-final, the Danish forward was joint top scorer in last season's competition with seven goals, and has this season made the step up to Ajax's first team. Featured against Manchester City in the Champions League recently. He is also the top scorer in this season's NextGen, with four goals.
Tony Watt (Celtic)
Announced himself on the European stage with an unforgettable winning goal against Barcelona at Celtic Park earlier this month, but showed flashes of his potential for the Hoops at NextGen level last season.
Mushaga Bakenga (Rosenborg, now at Bruges)
Six goals for Rosenborg in last season's NextGen was enough to persuade Club Brugge to pay €2.6m for the Norway U21 forward.
He has since been loaned to Cercle Brugge, where has scored four times in nine games.
Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
Will, incredibly, still be eligible for the NextGen Series for the next two seasons, but is unlikely to be sent back down to underage level any time soon, given his instant impact with Liverpool's first team. Could make his senior England debut this week.
Denis Suarez (Manchester City)
City's young player of the season last year, the diminutive Spaniard, 18, is tipped by many to make the step up to the first team in the next few months. Has made two League Cup appearances so far.
Andrea Stramaccioni (Inter)
It is not just players whose development is aided by the NextGen Series. Stramaccioni coached Inter to victory in the inaugural competition on March 25, and three days later was confirmed as the Nerazzurri's new head coach, at the age of just 36.