It took awhile for Liverpool's youngsters to settle into their must-win clash with Inter, but once they hit their stride they didn't look back while earning a 4-1 victory and progress to the knockout round.
The first half of group play was the absolute worst-case scenario for Liverpool in terms of results--flying high with many of the same personnel in the newly-established U21 Premier League, Rodolfo Borrell and company found little success in the NextGen Series, losing their first three matches out of the gate. The opener wasn't terrible, a 3-2 loss at defending champions Inter, but subsequent losses against Dortmund and Rosenborg left Liverpool on zero points with only three left to play.
Qualification for the round of 16 in the NextGen Series isn't as clear-cut as the Champions League or Europa League, with an additional four teams beyond the standard top two per group moving on. A quick 4-1 rebound against Rosenborg opened the door ever so slightly, and a follow-up 3-0 win over Dortmund (which came in new Reserves manager Alex Inglethorpe's debut) suddenly left Liverpool's youngsters with a chance at the knockout stages if they could get all three points against Inter at Langtree Park.
For thirty minutes it was fairly even; Inter hit the post inside the opening minute and nearly took the lead after a Krisztian Adorjan giveaway, but Liverpool had a majority of possession and were able to gradually turn the run of play in their favor. They took the lead on the half-hour, with Ryan McLaughlin bursting into the box only to be cut down, and Conor Coady converted from the spot to put the hosts in front.
They extended their lead through Inter's misfortune five minutes later, as Samed Yesil intercepted a backpass and rolled it into an empty net. Liverpool were comfortable for the rest of the first half and the opening twenty of the second, until Marco Benassi got one back for the visitors from a weakly headed clearance. Liverpool's response was immediate, though, with Samed Yesil slotting home a McLaughlin cross minutes later and another Coady penalty--again won by the impressive McLaughlin--finishing the match off.
The result's obviously terrific, as it provides a continued platform on a broader stage for the youngsters. But the manner in which they went about earning it was even better, with all thirteen that took part giving a good account of themselves in some way. As noted, McLaughlin was one of the standouts from his role at right-back and Coady converted both penalties calmly while playing well in midfield, and each of the starting front three--Jordon Ibe, Samed Yesil, and Jerome Sinclair--excelled as well. Ibe was perhaps the most notable even though Yesil got the goals (well taken as they were), proving too much for the Inter defense to handle and creating a number of threatening chances, including the well-weighted pass to play in McLaughlin on Yesil's second.
There's more, of course---Ryan Fulton was excellent in goal, Lloyd Jones and Jacob Sokolik were terrific in central defense, and Marc Pelosi was a standout in central midfield, controlling the tempo and piecing play together well from a slightly more advanced role. Not as flashy from Brad Smith or Krisztian Adorjan as we might be used to, but both played their part, and substitutes Daniel Trickett-Smith and Jordan Rossiter each had positive showings; the former got the better part of half an hour on the right wing after coming on for the injured Sinclair, and the latter entered to much fanfare, including a tweet from Robbie Fowler announcing him as having the potential to be the next Steven Gerrard.
It's going to be a busy spring for Liverpool's youngsters, with Elite Group play on tap in the U21 Premier League and a difficult draw set for the knockout rounds of the NextGen Series, as Inter and Ajax--who defeated Liverpool with ease in last year's semi-finals--are possible opponents. If they continue what they've done over the past few months, regardless of who they face, that can only be a good thing.