With the Reds blighted by key injuries to star players, only two of their starting eleven had appeared over four times for Liverpool. Seven full debuts were made, with the likes of Stewart and Kent crossing the whitewash for the first time.
In expected fashion, the Grecians flew out the traps emphatically, making their presence known to the Liverpool youngsters. The Reds were unable to deal with the home sides high pressing, as Reid found space in behind the full back to thread an exquisite ball across the 6 yard box. Tom Nichols poked it home at the far post, sending an already delirious St James’ Park into raptures.
Exeter however were soon punished for sitting back. A defensive mishap in Olejnik’s 6 yard box saw debutant Sinclair pounce, with the 19 year old stroking it into the far post to bring the scores level.
A hectic 15 minutes simmered down, albeit briefly, with the Grecian defence cancelling out Liverpool’s intricate play in the final third. Moore-Taylor and Brown had been too preoccupied with the presence of Benteke, allowing midfielders Brannagan and Stewart to dictate proceedings.
Stern words from the side-line saw a change in dominance, as the Grecian midfield began to command the flow of the game. A marauding charge down the flank from Ribeiro saw Holmes divert a dangerous cross over the bar. It was then Ribeiro’s turn to miss a guilt-edged chance, directing a header agonisingly the wrong side of the post.
With half time beckoning, Liverpool looked content to reach half time all square. Holmes however, had different ideas. Inadvertently or not, his corner looped over Bogdan into the far post, sending the big bank into hysterics. Exeter 2-1 Liverpool. Surely not?
As the second half started, the Liverpool backlash looked imminent. A goal bound header from Benteke was miraculously tipped over the bar by Olejnik, with the trend seemingly set for Liverpool to show their Premier League worth.
However, thanks to the tireless midfield work of Tilson in particular, the backlash had subdued significantly. The Grecians continually pushed for a 3rd, with Nichols coming close from a 20 yard free kick. Attack seemed the best form of defence for the home contingent, as constant harrying from Reid and Holmes saw the five-time European Champions slump into their shell. The inexperienced centre half partnership of Ilori and Enrique was being rattled, and a Liverpool fight back was slowly but surely looking less likely.
It wasn’t until the 70th minute that Liverpool started to pass the ball with conviction. Patient probing and intricate footwork around the penalty area allowed the newly introduced Ojo space on the left. His low cross into the box was parried to Smith, who reacted smartly to strike the ball into the goal.
With 20 minutes left, and the sides all level, it became evident that both teams were going for the win. A dinking run from Teixeria saw his effort saved by Olejnik, whilst Reid always looked dangerous on the counter attack. A 5th goal looked inevitable, with the Reds piling on the bulk of the pressure and Teixeria pulling the strings. However, noble defending from skipper Moore Taylor and Woodman quelled the onslaught, with the final whistle being greeted with a fittingly raucous response from the Exeter faithful. It seemed incomprehensible that a sense of disappoint lingered in the cheers of the Big Bank, seeing their side undeservedly concede a late equaliser. A 2-2 draw before kick-off would have been what dreams are made of for the Grecians, but the slight ting of regret only emphasises how terrific City had played.
When asked after the game if Liverpool deserved the draw, Klopp replied, “Of course, if we score 2 goals and they score 2 goals, then a draw is fair. The pitch helped Exeter a little more than us but this is expected.”
KLopp: “the pitch helped exeter more but this is normal. we deserved the draw”
In his usual jovial manner, he continued, “Our young boys did well. Not as good as they are capable of, but good enough for a draw. If the situation doesn’t change the same team will be played in the replay.”
Tisdale and his team will be licking their lips at the thought of playing at Anfield, especially if star names like Sturridge and Coutinho are still unfit. However, he’ll be making sure that Exeter travel to Liverpool to perform and to win … not to make up the numbers. One thing’s for certain, the fairytale isn’t over yet.
Liverpool Starting XI: Bogdan, Randall, Enrique, Smith, Ilori, Brannagan, Stewart, Kent, Teixeria, Sinclair, Benteke (c). Substitutes: Fulton, Lallana, Lucas, Ojo, Maguire, Chirivella, Masterson.
Exeter City Starting XI: Olejnik, Woodman, Noble, Ribeiro, Holmes, Nicholls, Moore-Taylor (c), Reid, Nichols, Tilson, Brown. Substitutes: MacAllister, Oakley, Davies, Morrison, Hoskins, Hamon, Grant.