Exeter City 2 Nichols 9', Holmes 45'
Liverpool 2 Sinclair 13', Smith 73'
So, that was a game that happened. In the most agrarian of performances on a dreadful pitch, a Liverpool side consisting of debutants, youths and assorted dog house dwellers eked out an away draw against League 2 Exeter City.
The Reds, in all-white for the occasion, came out in a sort of 4-4-1-1, with Christian Benteke captaining the side as a lone striker, and upcoming free agent Jerome Sinclair taking up position just behind him. Midfield was anchored by Kevin Stewart and Cameron Brannagan, while Joao Teixeira and the recalled Ryan Kent were tasked with creating havoc in the wide areas. The backline saw Jose Enrique as a makeshift centre-back in his first start for over a year, partnered by Tiago Ilori. Brad Smith and Connor Randall covered the fullback spots, and Adam Bogdan was between the sticks. The average age was 22.3 years, the XI had a total of 2225 first team minutes between them this season, and the starting squad numbers added up to 380.
Only a few minutes in, and a few things were already clear: Enrique has seemingly cut some grooming habits along with his social media accounts and is now displaying a silverback mane, this Exeter pitch looks like a potato field during a bombing run, and holy hell are these white shirts going to look dreadful in a second. Then Tom Nichols scored for Exeter off a cross, and everything looked to be going to plan for the hosts.
The visitors responded well, though, besieging Exeter's box and creating chances. Brad Smith had a shot hacked off the line and a left-footed effort from Teixeira was blocked for a corner. Between those two nearly moments, Jerome Sinclair scored an equalizer with a vintage poacher's effort from five yards out.
Then, following their short spell of domination, Liverpool took the next 50 minutes off. The hosts created a pair of excellent chances from crosses, with the improbably Welsh Christian Ribeiro going particularly close with a header. The teams looked to be headed to half-time with a goal apiece, but the Magic of the Cup wanted different. Lee Holmes whipped in a swerving corner, and Adam Bogdan completely whiffed at it, conceding an Olimpico. It was the Hungarian's second error leading to a goal in two straight matches, and shouts for him to replace Simon Mignolet look increasingly silly.
If the first half was agrarian, the second was pre-neolithic. Benteke had a powerful header well saved about five minutes in, but beyond that, nothing happened for about 25 minutes. At that point, Teixeira combined with substitute Sheyi Ojo, whose flat cross was partially cleared by a defender, but only as far as Brad Smith, who smacked home an instinctive volley.
The Grecians could not muster much of a response, and beyond what looked like a stonewall penalty shout after a tackle on Ojo, neither could Liverpool. The game ended 2-2 and The Reds will have to add a replay to their calendar sometime in the coming 2 weeks.
It is hard to set your expectations for a game like this. On the one hand, a side that consists of a mix of first team rejects, youths, and players who've only been back from loan for a day or two is never going to click immediately, particularly on a pitch made by and for tractors. On the other, there's a sense of excitement about watching players you don't often get a chance to see, and the implicit understanding that if these youths want to play in the Premier League any time soon, they need to show a bit of quality beyond what a League 2 side can provide, regardless of age.
Benteke was disappointingly anonymous and uninvolved, Bogdan will want to forget this as soon as possible, and Enrique was expectedly rusty at CB, without ever looking terrible. Ilori's meek depression beard stood out more than his performance, while Brad Smith continued to show promise on the ball and fragility defensively. Brannagan and Stewart were predictably uneven as a provisional double pivot, whereas Kent and Ojo showed glimpses of why they are the ones to watch in the current generation of Liverpool youths.
In the end, expectations make little difference now, and Liverpool must prepare for yet another fixture in a packed calendar. Assuming Jürgen Klopp rolls out a similar XI for that game, it won't matter much in terms of fatigue, as none of the players involved today, Benteke excepted, will be called on to take part in league matches with any regularity. And with that in mind, the real focus for Klopp will be not on what comes next in the FA Cup, but rather on getting the first team to perform to their best level in upcoming matches against Arsenal and Manchester United.