Liverpool stop the rot with hard-fought FA Cup win at Wolves

Harevy Elliott notched the only goal of the game  (AP)
Harevy Elliott notched the only goal of the game (AP)

After the worst performance Jurgen Klopp could remember came Liverpool’s best of 2023. They had set the bar so low against Brentford and Brighton, plus their previous meeting with Wolves, that it is not saying much but at least they offered a reminder of why they are the FA Cup holders. An imperfect display at least contained a show of spirit and they ended with bodies strewn on the pitch in their own box in exhaustion.

It was a sight Klopp could savour after Harvey Elliott’s glorious goal spared him a third exit to Wolves in his reign and brought the kind of prize he may not really want: beaten 3-0 at Brighton on Saturday, Liverpool now return to Sussex in the fourth round. If they are to retain their trophy, they will have to do it the hard way.

But Klopp had wanted a response and he got one. Liverpool’s resolve was apparent in their reserves. Klopp made eight changes and a second-string side, with the notable exceptions of Thiago Alcantara, Ibrahima Konate and Cody Gakpo, succeeded where their supposed superiors had failed 10 days earlier and beat Wolves. The lights went out but not on Liverpool’s defence of the FA Cup. A temporary power cut at Molineux in the first minute did not halt them. Watched by the rock star Robert Plant, Liverpool escaped the January blues.

Elliott celebrated scoring the only goal of the game (REUTERS)
Elliott celebrated scoring the only goal of the game (REUTERS)

Klopp had said the need for fresh legs explained his changes and there was the freshness an injection of youth can provide. A 19-year-old got the goal, in Elliott, and Liverpool benefited from some effortlessly perceptive passing from the 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic at the base of the midfield. He started superbly, offering evidence of his precocity. At the other end of the age spectrum, James Milner played his first game as a 37-year-old. The stand-in right-back was tested by the verve of Rayan Ait-Nouri but was characteristically dogged.

With fewer ageing legs, Milner apart, there was a greater intensity to Liverpool’s pressing. Klopp had felt Liverpool had lost too many challenges to Wolves at Anfield. They were more combative at Molineux. Naby Keita offered energy on a belated first start of an injury-hit season. In defence, Joe Gomez and Konate, who have both endured awkward outings since the World Cup, fared better amid their defiance. The Englishman made a goal-saving block to turn Raul Jimenez’s close-range header over the bar. A goal kick was given and, over the tie, it was hardly Wolves’ only grounds for grievance.

But for a missing camera angle, they might have claimed victory at Anfield. Instead they were eliminated by Elliott. Found by Thiago, the teenager drove forward from his own half and picked out the top corner of the Wolves net from 25 yards. It was a stunning strike, even if Jose Sa’s positioning could be questioned.

Liverpool were in the ascendancy then and the second half might have been more comfortable had they doubled their lead. Kostas Tsimikas rifled a shot over from an acute angle while the offside Fabio Carvalho had a strike disallowed.

The pressure on Jurgen Klopp may be lifted slightly after a vital win (AFP via Getty Images)
The pressure on Jurgen Klopp may be lifted slightly after a vital win (AFP via Getty Images)

He and Elliott flanked the senior member of the front three, who was making just his third appearance for the club. Gakpo led the line, roving around enthusiastically, linking with his new teammates promisingly and shooting more wildly. His wait for a first goal goes on but Liverpool could take encouragement from his evening. It ended when Mohamed Salah was sent on to see out victory, though Konate and Gomez had a greater role in that.

If Gakpo may remain Liverpool’s lone January arrival, Wolves are busier. They completed the signing of Pablo Sarabia from Paris Saint-Germain before kick-off. One Spain winger had a watching brief, another a typical night as Adama Traore troubled Tsimikas, though his finishing was erratic.

Julen Lopetegui had made seven changes though, as he sought an equaliser, he began to restore some of his usual starters to the side. He sent for Matheus Nunes and Nelson Semedo at half-time, removing the rookies Joe Hodge and Dexter Lembikasa. He then summoned Daniel Podence and Matheus Cunha.

Wolves surged forwards, pinning Liverpool back, and either Jimenez or Cunha, who slashed a shot wide and then headed tamely at Caoimhin Kelleher, perhaps ought to have levelled. Instead, for the second time in seven days, they exited a cup. Lopetegui is a Europa League winner but he will not add English silverware to his medal collection this season.