While Manchester United’s players spent this week in recovery mode and conducting yet another inquest after a toothless but nevertheless taxing European performance, most of Liverpool’s big-hitters had their feet up resting on Merseyside.
Jurgen Klopp was afforded the luxury of this Europa League jaunt to Brussels being a meaningless match, with his side already qualified for the round of 16, and therefore left Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah and Alisson Becker on Merseyside.
Many other pivotal figures, such as Dominik Szoboszlai, Darwin Nunez and Luis Diaz spent most of the night sitting on the substitutes’ bench wearing a puffer jacket, hat and snood. It’s just another argument to add to the list for why Liverpool are so fancied to thrash United on Sunday.
Liverpool ultimately lost the battle of the English and Belgian league leaders but it was nevertheless a proud night for the academy. With an XI that had an average age of 22, Klopp handed a day to remember for a number of kids from the Kirkby production line.
There was the heart-warming tale of Kaide Gordon’s first start in nearly two years. He became Liverpool’s youngest-ever FA Cup goal-scorer in January 2022 and made his Premier League debut the following week but has been riddled with injuries relating to growing pains since.
Mohamed Amoura put Union Saint-Gilloise 1-0 up after battling past Caoimhin Kelleher
Jarell Quansah blasted in an equaliser for his first Liverpool goal – and the 2,000th of Jurgen Klopp’s managerial career
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Ben Doak showed his electric feet, while three others proved there is nothing wrong with going out on loan, as the trio of Jarell Quansah (Bristol Rovers), Conor Bradley (Bolton) and Luke Chambers (Kilmarnock) are all cutting their teeth in the first-team after successful stints away.
There were also minutes off the bench for fellow young prodigies James McConnell and Calum Scanlon, it was also a proud evening for a more established academy graduate at Liverpool, Curtis Jones, with the Scouse midfielder captaining his boyhood club.
But as often happens when teams make mass changes, Liverpool looked incredibly disjointed, struggled to find any intensity or creativity in attacks and afforded Union Saint-Gilloise too much room when they made forays forward.
Liverpool had 71 per cent possession in the first half but did not manage a shot on target until the 40th minute – and their second one did not come until the 79th minute through substitute Ryan Gravenberch. The Belgian side constantly exploited gaps in behind the Reds’ back-line.
They took the lead on 31 minutes through Mohammed Amoura, who was set clean through by Gustaf Nilsson. Both of those had earlier been denied from close range by Caoimhin Kelleher but the Irish goalkeeper was helpless as Amoura held his nerve and rounded the keeper.
UEFA had named defender Quansah as a No 10, playing just behind defensive midfielder Wataru Endo up front, in their messed-up official formation graphic. But maybe they were on to something as Quansah scored with a fantastic strike from the edge of the penalty area.
Jones whipped in a nice corner, Union could not clear and Quansah finished well with power. After having a 97th-minute equaliser chalked off at Toulouse for an earlier handball, it was a nice moment for the Warrington-born defender who has been at the club since age five.
‘My condolences to Joel (Matip, out for the season) but my idea was to get over him anyway and get in the team,’ said Quansah, whose manager added: ‘Jarell is a top player and a top talent. Really happy he can get these performances.’
Cameron Puertas quickly restored the Belgian side’s lead a few minutes before half-time
Kaide Gordon made his first start in almost two years after an injury-hit period since becoming the club’s youngest-ever FA Cup scorer in January 2022
It was a proud day for academy graduate Curtis Jones as he captained his boyhood club
But after that tidy goal, Quansah was back to his day job of defending minutes later. Ibrahima Konate lost possession and then was caught out of position as Cameron Puertas exploited space, both behind Liverpool’s defence and inside Kelleher’s near post with a powerful strike.
‘It was a deserved win for Union,’ said Klopp. ‘They are well set up, a top side. The changes we made got rid of our rhythm. I’m really happy we gave it a proper game in the end. For some a really good experience and for others, good for rhythm. Nobody is injured.’
The Belgians kept pushing for a third goal and the crowd inside Lotto Park, the home of Anderlecht where Union are forced to play European games at, were furious in the 62nd minute as Puertas saw his second goal of the game chalked off after a handball in the build-up.
But soon they were singing Bella Ciao as their players and fans joined forces to celebrate a historic win that they richly deserved. Sadly, Union were forced to say ‘ciao’ – or ‘au revoir’ in their language – to the Europa League, but this well-run club will be back for sure.
Ben Doak was one of the youngsters given minutes and showed his electric feet but struggled for large parts of the game