A youthful Liverpool side rounded off their Champions League group with a 1-1 draw against Midtylland after more VAR controversy.
Following their win over Ajax in the last game, the Reds already confirmed their status as Group D winners, enabling Jurgen Klopp to ring the changes and give valuable rest to his first-team players amidst the gruelling schedule.
Reds field youngest starting eleven as Mohamed Salah breaks more records
It was the youngest ever starting eleven in the competition at 25 years and 26 days, with 19-year-old Leighton Clarkson making his Champions League debt as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Naby Keita returned to the lineup after injury lay-offs. Only Caoimhin Kelleher, Fabinho and Mohamed Salah retained their place following the 4-0 rout over Wolves, with Klopp fielding a more experienced side than initial reports suggested.
Fittingly, it was the Egyptian who opened the scoring for the Reds, becoming Liverpool’s record Champions League goalscorer with 22 goals, surpassing Steven Gerrard’s haul. His effort inside the first minute was also the fastest goal the team has scored in the competition, slotting through the legs of goalkeeper Jesper Hansen after 55 seconds.
Klopp’s side should have extended their advantage, with Diogo Jota forcing Hansen into two strong saves before Divock Origi missed a golden chance, side footing wide after finding himself unmarked in a good position. The Belgian struggled to take his opportunity to impress in only his fourth start of the season, and despite his historic goals in recent years, would appear to be heading for the exit door.
The Danish champions, who finished bottom of Group D, responded well after the interval, with Evander rattling the crossbar with a powerful strike. Their eventual goal would from a VAR decision that saw a penalty awarded after Kelleher brought down Anders Dreyer with a stray leg. One lengthy review later, Alexander Scholz converted from the spot kick to make it 1-1.
Jurgen Klopp continued to ring the changes, with Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino all called upon as the cavalry emerged, and appeared as though they had snatched a late winner when Takumi Minamino slotted home from close range in the 89th minute, after Henderson’s cross was met by Sadio Mane.
It sparked the latest in a growing line of VAR controversies, with the technology ruling out the goal for a handball against Mane in the build-up. Closer viewing appeared to show the opposition player instead making contact with the ball before it was converted, but there would be no lasting repercussions for the Group D winners.
A night of little importance still dominant by VAR
In a game that meant little on the face of it, with both teams fates already sealed, VAR still managed to make the occassion as painful as possible. Indeed, as a lengthy eight minutes of stoppage time was played to account for an evening dominant by stoppages in play and onerous reviews, the first of which came from Midtylland’s penalty in the 61st minute.
Played through with a ball over the top, Dreyer originally appeared to be offside, with the linesman’s flag raised before Kelleher came out to close down the midfielder. The referee consulted the pitchside monitor, and while the decision appeared to be correct in hindsight, the length of time taken highlighted the lingering issues.
However, the most controversial call would come later, with Minamino’s winner flagged for a handball on Sadio Mane, who was deemed to have headed the ball onto his own arm. Replays would show the defender was actually the culprit, leaving the game ending all square, and while there would be no fall-out from the result, it was another evening dominated by technology.
Junior Reds impress during invaluable experience
Jurgen Klopp’s side deserve immense credit for the way they have battled through a considerable number of injuries so far this season, with as many as 15 first-team players ruled out. In their absence, junior members of the team have stood up and been counted, with Curtis Jones a particular star in the Premier League, cementing his status in Klopp’s midfield.
With progress already secured, Wednesday proved a great opportunity to give other youngsters an opportunity to impress, with academy products Rhys Williams, Billy Koumetio and Leighton Clarkson both impressing as Kelleher continued his fine form.
Albeit beaten, the young Irish goalkeeper was an assured presence in the Liverpool goa, making a strong interception to prevent Erik Sviatchecnko’s header late on. He continues to look completely at home as Alisson Becker recovers from a hamstring strain.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Clarkson completed 10 ball recoveries during his Champions League debut, more than any other player on the pitch. A commanding performance in the middle of the park, it was testament to the growing profile he has established under Klopp, with the manager speaking highly of his technical ability in recent months.
The Reds may not have finished their group campaign with a win, but it was a night that will serve as invaluable experience to the young players.