Slightly convoluted qualification rules--top two from each group, then the third-place finishers with the highest points tally to round off the sixteen--allowed Liverpool's youth players a chance to progress past the group stage of the NextGen Series despite a dismal start, and today the competition announced the draw for the first knockout round, which is set to take place in February.
Liverpool get Sporting, who they faced twice last season during group play. The side from Lisbon ran out of both fixtures comprehensive victors; they sliced through their hosts at Anfield after a close opening half, eventually winning 3-0, and in the final match of group play they ran the scoreline up en route to a 5-1 victory. They narrowly lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Inter to drop out of the competition, but this season they picked up mostly where they left off, topping group four with 12 points.
I maybe caught a glimpse of one Sporting match this season, but if last season's form in the group is any indication--which it probably isn't given higher rate of turnover and etc.--it'll be a challenging tie for Alex Inglethrope's squad. The Portuguese squad did lose 5-1 to Aston Villa in the final round of group play, but at that point qualification had been secured and Villa were desperately in need of points to advance.
While there's likely to be some variation in the personnel, Liverpool can be heartened by their continued form in the U21 Premier League, which carried them to an unbeaten finish in the first phase of play and has them off to a perfect start in the second. They're top of the Elite Group on six points, winners of their first two against Southampton and Wolves.
A Dani Pacheco-forced own goal proved the difference against Soton, and against Wolves it was Samed Yesil turning home a Joao Carlos Teixeira pass for the winner. Krisztian Adorjan had opened the scoring before Liverpool conceded twice, and Marc Pelosi curled one through Aaron McCarey to draw level. The offal's released highlights of the win over Wolves for non-subscribers, so you can catch the goals below.
As someone pointed out the other day, the performance and apparent progress of Liverpool's youngsters has been one of the most exciting things about this season, and their continued success hopefully only gleans similar results at the senior level in the future.