Liverpool Starting XI
Wisdom, McGiven, Sama, Robinson
Coady, Shelvey, Silva, Suso, Sterling
Adorjan for Shelvey 59'
King for Robinson 59'
Ngoo for Morgan 59'
The NextGen Series was always about pitting some of Europe's most promising academies against the best, and for Liverpool, coming up against the academy that won the Portuguese youth championships five years in a row and is widely considered amongst the best youth set-ups on the continent was setting the bar awfully high right out of the gate.
In the end, while the 3-0 scoreline was more than a touch unflattering in light of Liverpool's at times quite impressive play, it still clearly signaled that for all the good work done in recent years, the revitalised academy isn't quite at the point where they can speak of themselves in the same breath as the likes of Barcelona, Ajax, and Sporting Lisbon. Still, they aren't that far off. They certainly aren't as far off as the final tally might indicate. And on another day, had Sterling, Suso, and Adorjan been just a touch sharper in front of goal, it's even possible that they would have come out of the first round of the NextGen group stage with a draw.
The match started with Conor Coady captaining the side as usual, despite the inclusion of Jonjo Shelvey, who stepped down from the first team to get a spell of match action and the chance to stamp his authority against what should have been a weaker opponent than those he usually faces with Liverpool. More surprising than Shelvey's inclusion, though, was that he started out the match in the most advanced midfield role, while the more flashy Suso sat deeper in a holding role alongside Coady. It wasn't a particularly effective tweaking of expectation, with Suso looking out of place and Shelvey failing to have any kind of positive influence on the game whatsoever.
Despite that, Liverpool started well enough—or perhaps Sporting was simply nervous. Whatever the case, for the first fifteen minutes or so Liverpool's youngsters looked set on confirming their press clippings from the past year, passing the ball around slickly and maintaining possession. However, they faced up against the same failing that has befallen the senior side so often in recent years: An inability to turn generally strong play into consistently good chances while then failing to convert any chances that do present themselves.
In short, they were wasteful, a theme that would continue until the final whistle while Sporting found their legs, grew back into the match, and showed that at least one of the academies on display could finish with the best of them. Watching Teixeira work a slick, training ground one-two with Alberto Coelho—with a back-heel thrown in for good measure—on the edge of the box to put Sporting up 1-0, then seeing Jack Robinson get embarrassed at left back as he chased the ball and left the wing wide open for the Sporting break before a low cross was coolly slotted into the bottom of the net by Coelho, it became clear that even if the Portuguese side wasn't going to completely dominate the game, they were going to make the most of any chances they did get.
Moving Suso into his more natural advanced role towards the end of the first half settled Liverpool down again after being sliced and diced by a fully awake Sporting had shaken them, and the young Spaniard should have pulled a goal back almost immediately on a centered ball from the typically lively Raheem Sterling. Instead, Suso ballooned it high over the crossbar as he stood unmarked at the penalty spot. Meanwhile on the right, Tony Silva was true to form, mixing brilliant individual moments with wasteful selfishness in equal measure. He too might well have pulled Liverpool right back into the game on a handful of occasions, but just as often he ignored unmarked teammates who would have had good chances on goal had he passed to them instead of losing the ball going up against two or three defenders.
Liverpool came out for the second half fired up, but another dominating start didn't lead to much of anything in front of goal and Sporting once again began to settle themselves and pass it around sharply, making the Liverpool defenders chase and tire. Taking off Shelvey, Robinson, and Morgan for Adorjan, King, and Ngoo, however, put Liverpool firmly back in control, and with the chances Liverpool missed in amongst their largely dominant play in the second half, as the match wound down it seemed as though a 2-2 draw would have been a fair reflection of the run of play.
Instead, Sporting substitute Rosa once again showed off the Portuguese academy's deadly finishing, curling a wonder-strike into the top corner on 86 minutes to seal a 3-0 victory for the visitors. And in the end, just as it had been in the first, that was the biggest difference: Sporting was sharp and took their chances brilliantly, while Liverpool just couldn't put the pieces together when they got in and around the 18-yard box despite long stretches where they controlled the game. It would be hard to argue that Sporting weren't better on the whole, but away from the eighteen-yard box it was a mater of degrees rather than of domination, and with a touch more sharpness all around for Liverpool it could easily have been a different story.
Somewhat surprisingly, too, it was Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Robinson—the two Liverpool players with the most first team experience—who put in by far the most disappointing shifts. With "If he's good enough, he's old enough" talk swirling this summer when it comes to Jack Robinson and John Flanagan, Liverpool's two young starlets at fullback, the past five days have served as something of a reminder that both players are in fact pretty damn young to be in contention for regular first team minutes, and that as promising as they seem they may at present be some distance from being good enough, too.
At the other end of the spectrum, Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom continued to show they aren't that far away from having their names added to the discussion, while Suso, McGiven, Adorjan, and Ngoo all had promising stretches, as did Tony Silva—at least when he wasn't displaying that frustrating selfishness he's shown since arriving at Liverpool.
So in the end it's back to talking about the game being a good experience; a learning experience. And in the end it was, with a lot of positives for the academy and players to take away from it. Sharpness in the final third and in front of goal, however, may need just a bit of work before they face off against Norway's Molde on the seventh of September.