Liverpool fans have finally seen Tiago Ilori in action. Quicker than the other Ronaldo once upon a time, Ilori seemed to lose his way. Loan spells in La Liga and Ligue 1 were promising but were undermined by injuries. Next it was England, and Aston Villa had an option to make a loan move a permanent one. At least the youngster would show what he was about in a robust and pacy Premier League, but unfortunately for all concerned, the 22-year-old failed to make a single appearance for the top flight's basement club.
Liverpool's centre backs dropped harder and quicker than many mouths at an awards ceremony hosted by Ricky Gervais, offering Ilori a chance to feature against a League Two side. It wasn't a triumphant return on loan similar to far younger players who had impressed at other clubs and appeared to earn a chance to make some competitive games in a time of need. Jürgen Klopp may have needed to preserve his remaining senior players ahead of a crucial week of Premier League action, but Ilori was sent back instead of recalled.
Nonetheless, Ilori was delighted to join four other players in making their respective debuts for Liverpool against Exeter City. The circumstances surrounding his return were less than ideal, but there is an opportunity to show that he can be competent when called upon.
"I'd waited a long time for that and I loved it," Ilori told the Liverpool Echo. "It was a dream come true. Hopefully there will be more minutes to come for me in a Liverpool shirt. I'm pleased to be back. This is where I feel most comfortable. This is my parent club. I love being here. It's been a frustrating season for me so far but I tend not to look back. I try to learn from the positive things and look forward. I've always been confident in my own ability. I carried on working and I knew that better days would come."
The challenge for Ilori—beyond actually securing games and making a positive impression of sorts—is being fit enough to provide relief during the club's injury crisis. His extremely slender frame had only been put through youth games (presumably) before his debut, and the sight of the player pulling up injured wasn't welcome. Ilori, however, banished any fears surrounding the health of his hamstrings.
"I'm fine. It was just cramp," the youngster revealed to potentially put himself in the conversation for the matchday squad against Arsenal on Wednesday. "I hadn't played for a long time but I enjoyed it. Obviously, the result wasn't the one we wanted but we fought hard to ensure we stayed in the competition and that's the most important thing. We could have won that game.
We had enough quality out there. I know it was a young side but age is just a number. We wanted it as much as anyone else. Hopefully next time we'll get a better result. Obviously, there are some defenders out injured at the moment but I don't know what the manager will decide, we'll have to see what happens now. I just try to work hard every day. I'll keep doing my best so that when the opportunities come along I can perform. "
Fans seemed divided on how well they thought the Sporting youth product played on his debut. He appeared perfectly serviceable against the Grecians, but Ilori appears extremely prone to getting bullied. The replay is expected to provide another taste of action for the Portuguese centre back, but if options at the heart of Klopp's defence remains thin, Ilori's confidence in his own ability might be tested a bit more this month.