Caoimhín Kelleher started this season’s Carabao Cup where he left off last time out, emerging as Liverpool’s saviour in a penalty shootout as Jürgen Klopp’s much-changed team scraped past League One Derby on a tense night at Anfield.
The Republic of Ireland goalkeeper produced three fine saves in the shootout to thwart Conor Hourihane, Craig Forsyth and the on-loan Everton striker Lewis Dobbin after a goalless 90 minutes. Harvey Elliott sealed the holders’ place in round four after 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic and Roberto Firmino had failed to convert for Liverpool, and Darwin Núñez only just managed to beat Joe Wildsmith in the Derby goal, but this was all about Kelleher’s penalty prowess once again.
The Irishman has now saved a total of six penalties in four shootouts for Liverpool, a club record that eclipses Pepe Reina’s five. Four of his eight appearances in the competition have gone to penalties and Liverpool have won every one, including last season’s final against Chelsea, when Kelleher also scored his team’s 11th and final spot-kick. “Wow,” said Klopp, when told of Kelleher’s shootout stats and place in the record books.
“They were three really good penalties as well, all going in the corner. We never hold him back, he is an exceptional goalkeeper. He has not had the best season so far because he came back from holiday with an injury. It took him time to get back up to speed but he is ready now. He barely smiles so when he does you know it means a lot. They are insane numbers.”
Kelleher’s contribution was essential after a young and inexperienced Liverpool front line, followed by more tried and trusted big names introduced from the bench, failed to break down a well-organised and resolute Derby defence in which their goalkeeper, Wildsmith, also excelled.
Derby had the backing of an impressive 5,600 away support and the defensive structure to contain their Premier League hosts throughout. Klopp made 11 changes from the team that beat Tottenham on Sunday and gave five youngsters their full Liverpool debuts – Bobby Clark, son of the former Newcastle and Fulham midfielder Lee, the 18-year-old Spanish midfielder Bajcetic, the forwards Layton Stewart and Melkamu Frauendorf, plus the summer signing Calvin Ramsay.
Technical quality was on display from all five, with Clark’s nutmegs and midfield runs catching the eye, although their understandable eagerness to impress contributed to a sloppy first-half display by the hosts.
Paul Warne’s side looked to hit Liverpool on the counterattack but, despite several determined runs down the right by Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, they did not have an attempt on Kelleher’s goal before the interval. Liverpool, with a more experienced defence and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain making a rare start in midfield, controlled proceedings without seriously troubling Wildsmith in the visiting goal until the second half.
The home side’s best chance of the opening period was created and missed by Stewart. A heavy first touch by Eiran Cashin allowed the 20-year-old to feed Fabio Carvalho in space on the left. Carvalho picked out Stewart with the return cross but, while well-placed in front of goal, the striker was off-balance and skied his shot over.
The second half witnessed more attacking intent and quality from both teams, mercifully, and Derby’s captain, Max Bird, had a fine chance to break the deadlock when Louie Sibley’s dangerous low cross picked out his run into the Liverpool box. Bird’s first touch struck Nat Phillips but rebounded kindly into his path, inviting a shot that was dragged across Kelleher’s goal and wide.
Wildsmith came under sustained pressure thereafter. The Derby goalkeeper reacted sharply to change direction and save a heavily deflected shot from Oxlade-Chamberlain that seemed destined for goal. He then pushed away a curling effort from Carvalho and saw Oxlade-Chamberlain slice over after Frauendorf’s back post headed was only half cleared by Haydon Roberts.
Improvement without an end product was not enough to satisfy Klopp and with 24 minutes remaining he summonsed Núñez, Firmino and Elliott from the bench in a bid to confirm Liverpool’s supremacy. The impact of the triple substitution was almost immediate. Firmino and Elliott combined to release Oxlade-Chamberlain behind the Derby defence for the first time and, though he just got his toes to the ball, Wildsmith spread himself well to save.
Wildsmith stood firm to make impressive stops from Elliott and Firmino, while Derby substitutes David McGoldrick and Dobbin also had chances to seal victory in normal time. Then it was penalties, and Kelleher’s time to shine yet again.