Liverpool beat Exeter 3-0 in FA Cup third-round replay as young stars shine
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three points from Liverpool's 3-0 victory over Exeter City in their FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday . . .
1. Manager's trust is repaid by second-string Reds
Given the debate that tends to surround decisions to make multiple changes in the FA Cup's early rounds, it was unsurprising that Jurgen Klopp found himself denying that he was taking the competition lightly before the initial tie at Exeter's St James Park.
Klopp made 11 changes for the Jan. 8 game, and the 2-2 draw that followed did nothing to reduce either the doubts over the wisdom of his selections or the workload for a club contesting three cups as well as the Premier League. But with injuries and fatigue still an issue, the German opted for much the same again at Anfield. Eight of the side from the first meeting were retained, although a dash of experience was added with Joe Allen, Jordon Ibe and Simon Mignolet drafted in for Ryan Kent, Jerome Sinclair and Adam Bogdan.
Klopp had promised that having been virtually introducing players to one another in the warm-up last time round, they would be better prepared here. As it turned out, the three training sessions they reportedly had as a team produced a more coherent display, one that would send them through to face West Ham United in the fourth round.
In contrast to the boggy away pitch on which they had previously toiled, Anfield offered them a chance to show their class. The defensive horrors of 12 days earlier were averted -- Jose Enrique and Tiago Ilori cruised through the first half and made some telling blocks in the second without being caught out of position as Enrique had been in the previous encounter. Playing deep in midfield, Kevin Stewart was assured while Joao Teixeira ahead of him showed flashes of class.
An 11th minute goal by Allen settled nerves even if the constant stream of possession that the home side enjoyed for the rest of the first half brought no further score. That the approach work for Allen's goal came from Christian Benteke and Brad Smith proved that the more established players Klopp had chosen would ultimately make the difference. Allen's superior awareness and anticipation was clear to see; Ibe also proved far too tricky for the League Two visitors to handle.
The 55th minute almost brought a second goal as Ibe stepped inside onto his left foot and cracked a shot on the underside of the bar and out off the goal line. Exeter left-back Craig Woodman was tormented by the Reds' winger all evening; Klopp must hope that Ibe can show this much confidence when next called upon.
Then came substitute Sheyi Ojo, who stole the show. The winger had shown his quality as a substitute at Exeter and did so more spectacularly here, adding a second goal in the 74th minute that oozed quality before Teixeira scored Liverpool's third in the 82nd. But all of the fresh faces making a rare appearance at Anfield played a part in getting the job done and will be the wiser for it.
2. Ojo may be ready to step up
The hope at Liverpool must be that rather than disappearing from view other than appearances in the FA Cup, some of the next wave will soon graduate from the club's U-20 side and various loan spells in the lower leagues. Such promotions would give Klopp some much-needed selection options at a time when his first-choice lineup has precious little room for maneuver.
One of the candidates to see more action is Teixeira, who was busy and eager to pry an opening. The attention drawn by Benteke gave the youngster opportunities to steal in from deep -- Exeter goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik was forced to charge out and deny him a shooting opportunity midway through the first period when he sprang behind the Grecians' defence.
Teixeira also tried his luck from distance and enjoyed some eye-catching moments in and around the box when combining neatly with Ibe, who slid a shot past Olejnik's right-hand post. Ibe returned the favour on the 70-minute mark -- Teixeira didn't get hold of the shot but soon atoned with the third goal.
It was not a night on which right-back Connor Randall and left-back Smith were given a stern enough examination to confirm their readiness for a more high-profile role, but they must be among the next cabs off the rank.
Ojo, again energetic off the bench, would be another candidate for more playing time. No further case need be made than his Vine-worthy goal. It took him only a second to spot Olejnik off his line and bend a left-footed chip from the right side of the area into the far top corner of the net.
With Anfield rising in the 50th minute to welcome back Jon Flanagan after his 20-month layoff with a knee injury, there's a sense that there may be a queue forming for a chance at Klopp's first XI.
3. Confidence boost for Benteke?
Understandably cursed of late by a lack of game time and the pressure to convince the world (and Klopp) that he deserved a place in the manager's plans, Benteke had been waiting for a night when everything seemed to come easily.
The Belgian forward was certainly central to Klopp's plans Wednesday night, and by no means did that mean high balls into the box. The hosts constantly looked to thread every attack through the centre-forward as if it was a pregame tactic. The ball frequently found Benteke, who would then look to shoot or return a pass to an onrushing midfielder.
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A fifth-minute turn and shot in a tight spot in the area pointed to what was to come while Ibe constantly sought to beat his opponent and cross from the right. The striker showed his limitations when having held the ball up on halfway, he sprayed a cross-field ball to no one in particular. Within his capability, however, was his contribution as his side went ahead -- his close-quarters passing enabled Smith to tee up Allen.
With his confidence up thereafter, Benteke then proceeded to outfox Exeter's Troy Brown with a nutmeg -- Olejnik was quick off his line -- and the No. 9 was even seen haring around to close down the Exeter full-backs. If a header over the bar from Teixeira's cross should have been put away, Benteke was at least deeply involved. He played a one-two with Cameron Brannagan, was quick to grab the ball to take a 25th-minute free kick (it skimmed over) and then nodded over again from Brannagan's hanging ball.
Exeter got wise to the threat but Benteke was frequently the conduit in the second half, too, exchanging touches with Allen and almost freeing up Stewart for a shot. On another day, a stumble would not have thwarted him when shooting on the hour and a stepover shortly afterward would have found a teammate.
The Belgian added execution to effort late on: After drawing several defenders at the edge of the box, he played a measured pass for Teixeira to put Liverpool out of sight.
Tom is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. Follow him @writertombell.