Plymouth Argyle 0
An early Sunday kick off for the FA Cup. On the back of a disappointing draw to Sunderland keeping the gap between Liverpool and Chelsea just wide enough to inspire doubt, one would think a break from league matches would be welcome. Savored even. After all, there’d been a glut of them, thick and fast through the holiday season, watching and feeling tired just from watching them - nevermind how the players and staff must’ve felt being in the middle of it all.
Rotation was expected, necessary. With Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, and Joel Matip still unavailable, with an attacking spearhead that had all but lost their legs against Sunderland, and a third round matchup against a League Two side, rotation was inevitable. So should it have been more or less of a surprise when Klopp put out the youngest Liverpool side ever, captained by our most senior member? Not to mention the long awaited return of defender Joe Gomez in the backline.
The match started wildly. Boys, eager to prove themselves as deserving the start in a storied competition. Plymouth, with their 9,000 fans taking up the entirety of the Anfield Road end, eager to prove they deserved to be there, to cause an upset. And with Chelsea all but running away with the league title, the FA cup is a competition Liverpool could still very much control. The first half Liverpool held possession, held it and held it, chance taken after chance taken. They looked harried and hungry, and Plymouth did everything they could - splendidly - to keep anything from coming to fruition. Even as a goal from Divock Origi was disallowed in the first twenty minutes, every single one of those under-23 boys were unlucky not to have made up for it.
The second half was less so. Plymouth continued to defend like their lives depended on it, stacking into the box. They were organized and resolute, so strong in their concentration. They may not score, but they’ll sure as hell keep us from scoring as well. That sinking feeling came, even as the boss sent out the cavalry of Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, and Roberto Firmino in the last fifteen. Just one, just grab one. If anyone can, it’s any of those three.
Shots came from distance, though. Boys, young and eager to please, but without the experience to move the ball forward, to find the space between the defenders and challenge the roadblocks in front of them, to score rightfully. Lots of attempted headers. Lots of cannon blasts outside the box. Not a one made it in. Plymouth should be proud of their performance, to come to a place like Anfield, with the home crowd and the intimidation. Once in a generation, a match like this happens, a commentator said. And they held their place, dug in their heels and kept from being trampled. They may have only had one or two shots on target, but they certainly foiled every single one from a Red shirt.
A draw is always disappointing. Nil-nil isn’t a scoreline anyone wants, especially when it would be so lovely to just cruise right on through, as we had done, we had been doing. A long season already made even longer by a replay, though, more air miles in the account as the club now has to travel to Devon to play Plymouth on their turf. This year, though, for once Liverpool aren’t hurting for matches. With no Europe to play in and more depth than anyone really knows what to do with - youngsters eager and ready to play, youngsters needing the experience - a replay doesn’t have the same shocking feeling as it once did. How bad could it really be?
A match like today was necessary, not for the rotations but for the lessons. Klopp’s first chance to see his youngsters when the focus is on them. When they run the show, how do they act? How do they play, when the Kop is singing at full volume around them, when the visiting goalkeeper is staring them down from behind 8 opposition players? Lessons to be learned from, and optimism to be had here. It may have ended in a draw and a replay, but Liverpool fought well.
We go again, with the replay to be played at Plymouth’s home stadium. Maybe the same bunch of lads, maybe a few more senior players. The magic of the FA Cup gets us all in the end.