Exeter 2 Liverpool 2
Jurgen Klopp sent out Liverpool’s boys to combat the men of League Two Exeter in the third round of the FA Cup and, thanks to a 74th minute equaliser from his young full-back Brad Smith, this was a rare occasion when the boys proved just about equal to the task.
This was a dramatic gamble by the German manager, on his debut in the competition, but he saw his team twice equalise through Jerome Sinclair and Smith after Tom Nichols had opened the scoring for the hosts and Liverpool’s reserve goalkeeper Adam Bogdan appeared to have gifted Exeter victory with an horrendous error from a Lee Holmes corner.
But Smith came to his manager’s rescue to bring the tie back to Anfield.
True to his pre-match promise, Klopp made 11 changes from his last senior line-up, a result of an injury crisis sweeping the Anfield dressing room and his desire to prevent any more senior players joining that list.
But despite the wholesale changes, which the manager insisted were all entirely unavoidable, Liverpool started brightly.
Benteke played a neat, early one-two with Sinclair and goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik saved low and well.
Against this unrecognisable Liverpool line-up, Exeter took the lead on nine minutes.
Forward Jamie Reid was too swift for full-back Smith, as was goalscorer Nichols who sped ahead of veteran defender Jose Enrique, the oldest man in the Liverpool starting 11, and slid the ball home clinically from 12 yards.
Liverpool’s response was quick and lethal.
It was an equaliser that highlighted the gulf in technical quality, even allowing for the young Liverpool side, as three home players, most notably midfielder Jordan Tilsson, failed to deal with Ryan Kent’s pass to the feet of Christian Benteke.
The loose ball broke kindly for Sinclair, starting his first game for Klopp’s team, and his finish showed composure way beyond his 19 years.
But as the half wore on Exeter grew in composure.
In the first minute of first-half injury-time, the pressure finally counted against the youthful visitors even if it was a 28-year-old goalkeeper Bogdan who was at fault as he inexplicably misjudged Holmes’ right-wing corner and allowed it to curl over his head into the roof of the Liverpool goal.
It took Liverpool just five minutes of the second period to finally provide service to Benteke, and it almost brought an equaliser as Brannagan’s left-wing centre picked out the Belgian international whose close-range header looked destined for the back of the net until Olejnik produced a stunning reflex block to keep it out.
The tie was finely balanced, although Exeter the more direct and threatening.
After 56 minutes, neat footwork from Alex Nicholls and Reid almost set up Nichols for another shooting chance while Ribeiro was wide with another header, again following an excellent cross from Holmes.
Nichols threatened with a couple more shots and substitute Arron Davies just missed the target from 20 yards with his first touch before Liverpool equalised for the second time, against the run of play, after 73 minutes.
Klopp substitute Sheyi Oji probed down the left touchline and his cross was cleared, poorly, by Moore-Taylor directly to Smith who drilled the ball into the back of the net from a dozen yards.
EXETER: Olejnik 8; Ribeiro 7 (Davies 65, 6), Brown 7, Moore-Taylor 7, Woodman 7; Tillson 7; Nicholls 7, Noble 7 (Oakley 62, 7), Holmes 8 (Grant 84); Nichols 9, Reid 8.
Subs (not used) McAllister, Morrison, Hoskins, Hamon.
LIVERPOOL: Bogdan 4; Randall 5, Ilori 4 (Maguire 77, 6), Enrique 5, Smith 6; Teixeira 8, Stewart 5, Brannagan 6, Kent 5 (Chirivella 57, 6); Benteke 6, Sinclair 6 (Ojo 70, 7).
Subs (not used) Fulton, Lallana, Lucas, Masterson.
Referee: S Attwell 8
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