Jürgen Klopp got the reaction he demanded and the reward he craved. Liverpool will make a quick return to Brighton, scene of their humbling in the Premier League on Saturday, having held off a determined yet toothless Wolves to secure a fourth round trip to the Amex Stadium.
The Liverpool manager had wanted another bite at Brighton to make amends for the 3-0 reverse that he described as one of the most galling experiences of his managerial career. “I’m not going to be a big mouth and say ‘We are coming again’ but we will go there and try to play better than last time,” he said.
Klopp was granted his wish by an outstanding first-half strike from Harvey Elliott, who illuminated the tie with a blistering shot from 25 yards, and a resolute second-half display as Wolves pressed for an equaliser. A vastly-improved performance by a team featuring eight changes from Brighton gave Liverpool a first win of 2023 and their manager some difficult choices for Chelsea’s visit to Anfield on Saturday.
Julen Lopetegui’s team had their own extra motivation having been denied victory in the first meeting at Anfield due to a controversial offside decision. They had incentive and much of the ball, but not the creativity or finishing touch to make them count.
“What happened in the first game was a pity and maybe we shouldn’t be here to play this match,” said the Wolves manager, still clearly aggrieved at Toti’s late disallowed goal on Merseyside. “We deserved more but it’s not about what you deserve, it’s about goals.”
Wolves started brightly, albeit after a first minute floodlight failure, with Rúben Neves looking to release Adama Traoré behind Kostas Tsimikas at every opportunity.
Their first chance arrived via the opposite flank when Raúl Jiménez sent Rayan Aït-Nouri away down the left and, having cut inside James Milner, the converted winger’s shot was blocked by Joe Gomez. Wolves’ penalty appeals for a handball by Gomez were dismissed by referee Andre Marriner and VAR – the ball struck the defender’s elbow at close range – and their mood deteriorated further when Liverpool swept into the lead seconds later.
It was a stunning finish from Elliott, although Lopetegui will rightly have asked questions of Wolves’ defending and the positioning of goalkeeper José Sá. Receiving the ball from Thiago Alcântara inside his half, the 19-year-old advanced into Wolves’ territory and kept on running as the home defence backed off. Elliott seized the invitation to shoot and his 25-yard effort flew over Sá, stranded way off his line, into the roof of the net.
Klopp punched the air in celebration. The goal was not all that would have satisfied the Liverpool manager. He had demanded greater intensity, aggression and urgency in response to the meek display at Brighton and his much-changed team delivered.
Liverpool performed with renewed confidence after the breakthrough. Thiago’s influence increased with Stefan Bajcetic, Fábio Carvalho and Elliott providing energy and options around him. Liverpool almost doubled their advantage when Carvalho found Tsimikas in space inside the area but the full back’s drive flew inches over Sá’s crossbar. Carvalho did beat the Wolves keeper with a smart finish from Elliott’s pass but was flagged offside.
Wolves continued to enjoy plenty of possession but had no cutting edge. A Traoré shot, sliced well wide after he raced onto a Neves ball over the top, was as close as the home side came to troubling Caoimhin Kelleher in the first half. Lopetegui was incensed by what he perceived as persistent fouling by Liverpool going without the punishment of a booking. After a Milner foul on Jiménez, that again resulted in a foul but no card, he was involved in a furious row with Klopp that prompted the fourth official to intervene.
The Wolves manager made a double substitution at the break, introducing Matheus Nunes and Nélson Semedo, but the pattern remained the same from his team: promising, patient approach work coming to nothing in the final third. The Liverpool defence deserve credit for nullifying their opponent and isolating Jiménez but a lack of ingenuity and quality in the Wolves attack was evident. Traoré, found in space on the edge of the area by the Mexico international, summed up that aspect of the home display by sending his shot into the upper tier.
Wolves pressed throughout a dominant second half. The Neves-Traoré route almost paid dividends when the powerful winger drove to the byline and floated a cross over Kelleher for Jiménez. The centre-forward connected from two yards out but his header struck the back of Gomez’s head and deflected over. Marriner, not the most popular chap inside Molineux, awarded a goal-kick. It was not Wolves’ night. It was not their tie. Liverpool will return to the south coast with something to prove.