Ian Doyle with the analysis from Anfield after Liverpool earn a place in the FA Cup fifth round with a 5-2 win over Norwich City at Anfield on Sunday.
Bradley increases Trent debate
One consoling factor for Jurgen Klopp over his decision to depart Liverpool in the summer is the knowledge he won’t be leaving behind a faltering team.
And there was again evidence here of why the Reds should have every confidence in a bright future.
Conor Bradley, making a fourth successive start at right-back, added to his assist at Bournemouth last weekend with another two, the first a showcase for both his defensive tenacity in winning the ball from Norwich full-back Sam McCallum and then his attacking composure in playing a one-two with Diogo Jota before feeding Darwin Nunez to score.
Indeed, Bradley’s overall performance will only intensify the debate over whether he can be a long-term option at right-back and allow Trent Alexander-Arnold to push into midfield.
This, though, was an even bigger afternoon for James McConnell, the 19-year-old defensive midfielder who caught Klopp’s eye in the summer and who, with Alexis Mac Allister not risked and Wataru Endo still away on international duty, was handed a first start.
McConnell can be more than satisfied with his efforts. No player made more ball recoveries and that he was perhaps fortunate to escape a booking underlined his willingness to get stuck in, one strong challenge on Gabriel Sara prompting huge cheers. The teenager is also strong in the air, a little everything to his game.
That was clear with his clever pass over the top of the Norwich defence that invited Curtis Jones to open the scoring. And with Jones – a role model for the Academy’s next generation – setting up Jota’s third, four of Liverpool’s five goals were assisted by Kirkby graduates.
The Norwich players who had done well to keep themselves in with a fighting chance would have been forgiven for turning the air blue following a glance to the touchline shortly before the hour.
Standing there were Andy Robertson, Dominik Szoboszlai and Virgil van Dijk, all waiting to enter the fray.
Robertson was making his first appearance since October having undergone surgery on a shoulder injury suffered while on international duty. Ring-rust was understandable, but the ovation he received when trotting on shows he has been missed even if, with Kostas Tsimikas also sidelined, Joe Gomez has been a superb stand-in.
Szoboszlai, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen since New Year’s Day, but his absence with a hamstring injury could prove a blessing after appearing jaded during his first experience of the relentless English schedule. The midfielder appeared lively in his cameo, with his corner delivery inviting Van Dijk to head in the fourth.
The trio were joined shortly afterwards by Trent Alexander-Arnold, another making a comeback after three weeks out with a knee problem.
That the cavalry is back for Liverpool – hey, even the lesser-spotted Thiago Alcantara is finally in full training – is particularly timely given a week in which their Premier League title credentials will be put to the test with Wednesday’s home clash with Chelsea followed by a trip to Arsenal four days later.
Klopp reign extended
So the countdown to Jurgen Klopp’s farewell begins. The Reds will hope there are as many 29 games remaining, which would indicate they had followed their imminent League Cup final appearance with outings in the showpieces of the FA Cup and Europa League.
While it was impossible for the Anfield crowd not to recognise the manager’s imminent exit, the performance of his players suggested they won’t allow any sadness at the news to detract from their work.
Ryan Gravenberch again impressed with a more disciplined showing while Darwin Nunez led the attack well, the comfort at which he stroked home Liverpool’s second goal highlighting his confidence levels at present.
The Championship will provide the opposition again in the fifth round, with either Watford or in-form Southampton visiting Anfield next month. Clearly, Liverpool will want to keep extending Klopp’s reign for as long as they can.
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