Wolverhampton 2 - 1 Liverpool
Wolves: Jimenéz 38’, Neves 55’
Liverpool: Origi 51’
With a club record start to the league season under their belt, leading reigning champions Manchester City by four points, and a clash with perennial Champions League contenders Bayern Munich on the horizon, Liverpool’s players and manager can be forgiven for not prioritising the FA Cup.
As much as Jürgen Klopp will deny it in his post-match interview, those priorities were clear from the offset. The Reds lined up with youth winger Rafael Camacho at right-back and defensive midfielder Fabinho at centre-back, while 16-year old Ki-Jana Hoever made his debut only five minutes into the match, as Dejan Lovren — possibly carrying a knock from last week’s match at the Etihad — was forced off with an injury.
Up top, Curtis Jones was handed his debut on the left wing opposite Xherdan Shaqiri, while Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge rounded out the attack.
The match began as it meant to go on; with very little happening. Origi nearly found a streaking Sturridge with a chipped through ball, and James Milner was booked for a late challenge following a giveaway in midfield, but beyond that, it was a dull, disorganised affair, with neither side mounting much of a threat.
The hosts were gifted a goal five minutes from the whistle, however, as Milner attempted to turn under pressure in midfield and was dispossessed, before Fabinho threw himself to the ground in an attempt to ameliorate the situation. Raùl Jimenéz had a long way to go before facing off with Simon Mignolet, but as Milner inexplicably decided to run with Diogo Jota rather than cut off the ball carrier, Jimenéz was allowed to move unopposed into the area and place a finish into the bottom corner.
The second half was only five minutes old when Origi leveled the scores. The Belgian striker collected the rebound from a Milner effort, cut inside, and hammered a left-footed strike into the corner from 20 yards. Despite looking a shadow of his former self, the 23-year old now has two goals and one assist in his four appearances this season.
The visitors were unable to build on their equaliser, however, and Wolves soon retook the lead. After stretching the pitch with some terrific cross field passing, the hosts set up Rúben Neves from 25 yards, and the Portuguese starlet let fly with a dipping drive. There will be questions about Mignolet’s footwork — the shot was a good yard away from the post as it crossed the line — but the Belgian was seemingly blocked from seeing the origin of the shot and could only make a tame leap towards the ball as it bounced past him.
Twenty minutes from time, Shaqiri saw his sensational curving free kick smack off the frame of the goal, and replays would show that John Ruddy was to blame, getting just enough of a fingertip on the ball to redirect it onto the post. Klopp would bring on Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah for Sturridge and Jones soon after, as much to give the star attackers a run-out as an attempt to win the game, and despite piling on more pressure in the Wolves’ final third, the Reds never really got particularly close to scoring.
An early FA Cup exit, then, and really, who cares. Liverpool have leagues to win, and in order to do so, they will require their starters to maintain fresh legs as the season winds down. City are unlikely to go away any time soon, and, despite an aging squad, Bayern Munich represent a significant obstacle between the Reds and the Champions League quarter finals.
Injuries to three out of four senior centre-backs undoubtedly looks like an issue, however, and despite appearing impressively composed for a 16-year old — Liverpool’s best attack in the final 20 minutes originated from a breaking run by the Dutchman — Ki-Jana Hoever is not the solution in 2019. Fabinho can cover the spot in a pinch, but it is clear that the synergy between the first-choice defenders is a delicate one, and any upheaval will result in some instability.
No time to fret, though, as Liverpool are back in action on Saturday, traveling to Brighton in search of a return to winning ways, and looking to put pressure on City by increasing the gap to seven points.