Wolves 2 Liverpool 1
Liverpool bowed out of the FA Cup on an evening when Jurgen Klopp, via his 21st century boys, signalled that this season it is one competition too many.
Three teenagers played significant parts in Klopp’s team at Molineux, as did a makeshift centre-back and a forward trio that looked distinctly second string.
The result, against a strong Wolves side, was predictable, even if Divock Origi’s equaliser did briefly threaten to put the Reds’ name in the fourth-round draw.
That was the Belgian striker’s only significant contribution on an evening when too many of Klopp’s second-string players came up short against a Wolves side with too much nous to have liberties taken with them.
“I am very pleased, the team performed very well in a tough game. We took our chances,” Nuno Espirito Santo said.
On a night when Klopp put his trust in youngsters, the last thing he needed was his elder statesman and captain to gift his opponents a goal.
James Milner did not get the memo, and his first-half aberration allowed Raul Jimenez to give Wolves a half-time lead after an opening 45 minutes in which excitement was scarce.
Origi’s crisp strike six minutes into the second half gave Klopp and Co hope, but just four minutes later a fabulous strike from Ruben Neves restored Wolves’ lead and hastened Liverpool’s early exit.
The pre-match team news appeared to tilt the balance in Wolves’ favour, with Liverpool handing debuts to teenagers Rafael Camacho and Curtis Jones and deploying Fabinho in an unfamiliar role in the centre of defence.
The pair became the first players born in the 21st century to play for LIverpool’s first team.
When Dejan Lovren, their only recognised centre-back, was forced off injured in only the sixth minute, they were left with Fabinho partnering debutant Ki-Jana Hoever.
The Dutchman, who does not turn 17 until later this month, became the third youngest first-teamer in Liverpool’s history.
Wolves appeared to fancy the task in hand and twice tried their luck early on with efforts from distance.
The first, from Joao Moutinho, flew narrowly wide and the next, from Ruben Neves, went well over the crossbar.
Fifteen minutes from half-time Xherdan Shaqiri threatened to punish a slip by Wolves defender Ryan Bennett but the Swiss foward’s shot was wayward.
The first-half fare had been dreadful, so much so that a tame shot at stand-in Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet by Jonny Castro Otto from a Neves pass represented the most noteworthy opening of the first 35 minutes. Things changed, however, eight minutes from half-time when Liverpool’s rookies saw their most experienced colleague gift Wolves the opening goal.
Milner dwelt on the ball, Diogo Jota nicked it, it broke for Jimenez and the striker did the rest.
The Mexican beat Fabinho’s challenge then sprinted away from the back-tracking Milner before despatching a fine, low finish past Mignolet.
Liverpool produced few signs of a fightback, but six minutes into the second half they were level.
Wolves failed to clear from the edge of their own penalty area, a poor touch by Milner found its way to Origi and he sidestepped past Willy Boly before firing a shot through the legs of Leander Dendoncker and past Ruddy.
Parity lasted just four minutes, however, before Neves conjured up a fine goal to restore Wolves’ advantage.
He collected a square pass from Ruben Vinagre, took a touch and unleashed a 25-yard effort with his right-foot that bent around a defender before beating Mignolet at his near post.
It might have got worse for Liverpool when Jimenez preyed on a hesitant touch by Hoever and rounded Mignolet.
But the Wolves goalscorer ran out of pitch, got his feet in a muddle and prodded the ball into the side netting.
With 20 minutes remaining onto the woodwork denied Liverpool a second equaliser as Shaqiri’s free-kick from more that 20 yards skimmed the fingertips of the diving Ruddy, thudded against the post and rebounded to safety.
That was the cue for Klopp to mobilise the cavalry, with Salah and Firmino introduced from the substitutes’ bench, but their introduction did little to alter the game.
Camacho gave Ruddy momentary alarm with two late, long-range shots but his efforts typified Liverpool’s night as they failed to trouble Wolves unduly, leaving their fans to celebrate safe passage beyond round four while Klopp was left to concentrate on Premier League and Champions League ambitions.
WOLVES (3-4-1-2): Ruddy 6; Bennett 7, Coady 7, Boly 6; Otto 6 (Doherty 75, 6), Dendoncker 6, Neves 7, Vinagre 7; Moutinho 6; Jimenez 7 (Costa 83, 6), Jota 5 (Cavaleiro 52, 7).
Subs not used: Norris, Gibbs-White, Saiss, Traore.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Mignolet 6; Camacho 6, Lovren 5 (Hoever 6, 5), Fabinho 5, Moreno 6; Milner 5, Keita 5, Jones 5 (Salah 70, 6); Shaqiri 6, Sturridge 5 (Firmino 70, 6), Origi 6.
Subs not used: Kelleher, Mane, Christie-Davies, Alexander-Arnold.
Referee: P Tierney.