F.A. Youth Cup, Round 6: Liverpool U-18 v Manchester United U-18

In the most unlikely of turnarounds this afternoon, United’s Academy youngsters converted a 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 victory in this FAYC 6th Round tie..  However, what started out as a reasonably relaxed kickabout in the Liverpool sunshine ultimately turned into a full-blooded battle of attrition, with a pernicketty referee, 4 red cards and so many yellow cards that I lost count.

The game was staged at The Aldi Stadium in front of just over 10,000 fans with a strong and noisy United contingent at the Anfield Road end.  You always wonder if these young players will have their heads turned by playing on such a big stage and United’s youngsters certainly looked hesitant in the first 10 minutes.   Liverpool started the stronger and United had it all on to keep them at bay in a frenetic opening.  Paul Pogba picked up a yellow card inside the first minute, which was going to catch up with him later and also indicated that the referee, Mr Coote, was a bit of a stickler.

Paul Pogba’s first-minute booking caught up with him later…

Thereafter, the game settled into a pattern, with Liverpool having most of the possession and United having to content themselves with the occasional break.  United were yet again deprived of the services of their two leading goalscorers with John Cofie out for an unspecified period following minor knee surgery and Will Keane still absent with what was described as a ‘dead leg’ that he picked up playing for England’s U-18’s about three weeks ago.  These two between them have contributed well over 20 goals to United’s cause this season and in their absence, United were again forced to use Gyliano van Velzen, a left-winger, as a lone front man with Jesse Lingard,  Larnell Cole and Ravel Morrison pushing forward in support when they could.

To be honest, it didn’t really work; whatever else he is, Van Velzen is no front man and though he worked diligently enough, he was generally outthought and outfought by a muscular Liverpool back four.  As a consequence, United had to soak up a lot of pressure as Liverpool pushed forward with flying winger Raheem Sterling and prolific striker Adam Morgan both looking dangerous.  Sam Johnstone was kept busy, making several excellent saves, whilst United’s best effort saw Ravel Morrison breaking forward to curl a shot  just over the bar.

Even so, the overall pattern was one of Liverpool dominance and Pogba, Tunnicliffe and United’s defenders were repeatedly getting stretched.    Left-back Tyler Blackett was needing all his athleticism to cope with the tricky Sterling, who had scored five goals in the previous round’s 9-0 demolition of Southend, but who switched wings and wandered in a free role as he attempted to unpick United’s defence.  This duly happened after 33 minutes when he cut in from the right and fed Morgan, who produced a composed finish from about 12 yards out.  It nearly got worse for United before half-time, with Johnstone needing to plunge to his left to keep out Sterling’s low shot.

I would imagine that Paul McGuinness’ half-time teamtalk would have centred on the need to get players forward in support of Van Velzen as United carried only a minimal threat in the first half.  Whatever was said didn’t seem to work as Liverpool resumed their dominance and went further ahead after 53 minutes when Morgan got on the end of the overlapping Brad Smith’ s low cross to bundle home from close range.  His gestures to the United fans behind Sam Johnstone’s goal will not have endeared him to anyone, but whether it was his premature triumphalism or another factor altogether, United immediately stormed down to The Kop end and, thanks to the persistence of Ryan Tunnicliffe, won a penalty when he was brought down.  As the last defender, Stephen Sama was shown a red card – in truth a rather harsh decision.  Sama was clearly devastated as he slowly left the pitch – a scene that was to be repeated just a couple of minutes later.

After Sama had finally left the pitch, Paul Pogba stepped up to take the penalty, but crucially stopped (rather than stuttering or pausing  à la Ronaldo) before rolling the ball past the (by now) prostrate Tyrell Belford.  Cue massive Liverpool protests and an inevitable second yellow card for Pogba, who cut an even more distressed figure than Sama as he left the field with the jeers of The Kop ringing in his ears.

Under the circumstances, with The Kop howling abuse at him and everyone on the pitch on edge, I have nothing but admiration for Larnell Cole, who accepted the responsibility of the re-taken penalty and coolly slid the ball into the bottom left corner of Belford’s net.

10 versus 10 now and even at 1-2, with The Kop awoken from their slumbers, it looked as though it was going to be difficult for United to make any further progress.  However, it was the Liverpool players who seemed most affected by the sendings-off, whilst United, driven on by the increasingly inspirational Ryan Tunnicliffe, began to play their best football of the afternoon.

Ryan Tunnicliffe….cometh the hour……

Suddenly, United’s players were finding space and they began to spray passes around in a style that is more typical of their play.  Just 3 minutes after the penalty, Cole sped past Smith down the right and produced a fierce low cross that was expertly steered home by the prowling Ravel Morrison,  who was quick to ape Morgan’s behaviour by enquiring if The Kop had anything to say about his finish.

2-2 now and the United players were clearly buoyed by an extraordinary comeback.  By contrast, Liverpool’s attacks no longer carried the same menace, particularly once Morgan had limped off with an ankle injury.  Tunnicliffe continued to drive United forward and both Cole and Morrison began to find space in and around the Liverpool box.  It was this pairing that combined to produce United’s winner just 4 minutes from time.  Cole’s right-wing corner flicked a Liverpool head on its way through to Morrison, who, some 12 yards out on the angle, took off to produce an acrobatic volley that fairly flew into the Liverpool net. 

Ravel Morrison – spectacular winner

Having surrendered what had looked at one point to be a comfortable 2-0 lead, the Junior Dippers were not best pleased by United’s trademark comeback and there were a number of off-the-ball scuffles in the remaining minutes of the match.  The most serious of these saw United full-back Tyler Blackett going toe-to-toe and head-to-head with Liverpool captain Conor Coady, resulting in a bloody nose for Coady and red cards for both players.  At 9 versus 9, Liverpool had clearly lost all their composure and there might have been further sendings-off as Liverpool defender Wisdom failed to live up to his name by clashing with United sub Scott McGinty near the left-hand corner-flag.  However, the card-happy ref chose to stick with yellow for both players and United simply ran down the clock to secure a famous victory.

United will now face Chelsea in a two-legged semi-final and will hope to get Will Keane (at least) and maybe John Cofie fit for that game.  Blackett and Pogba will presumably face suspensions for their red cards today, though these may conceivably (hopefully!) be applied during forthcoming Academy League games rather than in the first leg of the semi-final.  We’ll have to wait and see on that one.  Plenty of character from the United lads today in a game where they were hampered by having no recognised striker.  Tunnicliffe was again hugely impressive, taking charge of the game after Pogba had been sent off and there was also a good showing from goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, who made several crucial saves.  It was a bit harem-scarem at times but the essence of cup football is, of course, to make progress and the U-18’s, like the first team against Arsenal yesterday, showed plenty of guts and determination when the occasion demanded it.

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