Despite losing to Anzhi on Thursday, manager Brendan Rodgers had nothing but praise for his young squad. He also opened the door to controversy by suggesting the veteran Joe Cole's day had been similarly praiseworthy.
With most of Liverpool's regulars left home for the trip to face Anzhi Makhachkala, victory was always going to be a difficult task for a side made up entirely of youth and fringe players. In fact, the closest thing to regular starters on the pitch Thursday night were 19-year-old Andre Wisdom and 20-year-old Jonjo Shelvey—not the most senior, but with five and seven league starts apiece certainly the two who have seen the most minutes under Brendan Rodgers.
Following the match, then, with Liverpool having gone down to defeat, it was inevitable the manager would be asked about his choice to rest his regulars, and about whether he felt that his side could have won the match with the likes of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez in the starting lineup—or at least on the bench.
"I think that's disrespectful to the players who are here," was Rodgers' reply. "They have been magnificent and done really, really well tonight. We just got punished for a mistake in concentration and that led to us losing the game. It wasn't anything to do with Suarez, Gerrard, Allen, Agger, or Skrtel not being here."
The full and honest truth is, of course, that Liverpool would have at least had a better chance if those players been around. But it's also the case that with Chelsea on Sunday and many of his stars beginning to show signs of tiring in the midst of a congested schedule, Rodgers had little choice but to select the side he did.
And there's some truth to his assertion that many of the young players forced into action by Liverpool's dangerously thin squad did put in strong performances, playing Anzhi level for most of the match. On another day they may have even escaped with the nil-nil draw the weakened visitors went into the game hoping for. And from that point of view, for Rodgers to do anything but praise them would have been a disservice to their efforts.
"I am very proud of my young players," he continued. "It was a difficult night but it was a great team performance. First and foremost, we looked at a different system. We played 3-5-2 tonight. We did some work on it going into the game. thought Conor Coady did very well on his debut and Adam Morgan's movement was good. For Flanagan it was his first game for a long time.
"It is a steep learning curve and when we learn to cut out our mistakes we will be able to go on and win these games, [but] we created chances throughout and although they got at us a bit more as we pushed on I thought we deserved something out of the game."
Those young players Rodgers is so proud of may not have had flawless nights, but then it was hardly their fault that so many were forced into action all at once against the Russian Premier League's answer to Manchester City. And it was hardly Rodgers' fault, either.
Reporters asking if Liverpool might have had a better chance of winning with the likes of Suarez, Gerrard, Allen, Agger, and Skrtel in the lineup are rather overlooking the reality of the situation in their attempts to get the manager to admit he made some kind of a wrong call. As are any fans complaining about Rodgers' choice to play mostly kids. The inescapable truth is that it was a team selected out of necessity—and it quite nearly did enough to eek out a tough draw far from home.
What a more senior group might have been able to do in this case is irrelevant, at least if Liverpool is to have any kind of chance against Chelsea come Sunday. Still, if playing youth and inexperience was a matter Rodgers had little real choice in, it can't go unmentioned that some of his more senior fringe players let him down having been given a chance to impress, and that in at least a few cases it's fair to wonder if Liverpool might have done better had they instead played more kids.
On this front, then, it's fair to say that Rodgers is on slightly shakier ground, especially when he added to his praise of the many youth players involved on Thursday night by saying, "Joe [Cole] did very well tonight. His movement was good and it looked more like what Joe can produce in terms of the final third."
Perhaps, though, as when he implied that including more regular starters wouldn't have been likely to change the outcome, it was simply another case of Rodgers being politic.