The empty stands might make it seem as though the tournament could be taking place anywhere these days, but you can rest assured that Tranmere’s Prenton Park will not host a Champions League fixture any time soon.
It did host some Champions League players in the not-too-distant past though.
It was three years ago this week, in fact, that a Liverpool youth side containing defender Rhys Williams and midfielder Curtis Jones lined up there in a UEFA Youth League fixture against the Slovenians of Maribor, with Jones – a cocky midfielder with hair that stood out and a Scouse attitude that did as well – opening the scoring in a 3-0 win.
In the dugout was the figure that remains synonymous with Liverpool in the Champions League.
Steven Gerrard watched on as his Liverpool youth side – the first group he had ever managed at any level – played out a smooth win that would go on to be replicated by Jurgen Klopp’s first-team later that day.
That now, three years on, Williams and Jones are part of that first-team owes a little to the former club captain, a little to Klopp and a lot to two players who are growing in stature with each passing week.
It was Jones who was the more well-known before the last month of course, with a dipping strike from the edge of the box against Everton in a televised FA Cup third round game likely to do that for you.
Whilst still on the fringes of things pre-lockdown last season, the midfielder has now firmly settled in to Klopp’s first-team plans, so much so that he has started three of the last five matches in all competitions to little surprise.
He was excellent at Atalanta.
Jones – wearing Gerrard’s old No.17 shirt he was sporting back in 2001 – was always wanting the ball and often demanding it off teammates with much greater reputations than his own.
One of the wonders of the teenager is that, in his head, no-one has a bigger reputation than he does. It is what makes him so exciting.
Williams, you suspect, thinks rather differently to that, with the centre-back still surely feeling as though he’s experiencing some kind of reality show in which you go from a loan spell at Kidderminster Harriers to the Champions League in just a few short months.
He’d have gone into the Atalanta game perhaps hoping that he wouldn’t have much to do, and although he didn’t, everything that was required of him was done with a minimum of fuss.
It is easy to see why the club think Williams has a higher ceiling than Nat Phillips, the rugged 23-year-old who started the win over West Ham but who isn’t eligible for the Champions League because the Reds thought he’d be leaving the club before they had to register their squad.
We wouldn’t be talking about either defender if it wasn’t for what happened to Virgil van Dijk of course, but in injury comes opportunity, and the same can be said for Jones as he stakes his claim in the absences of Thiago Alcantara and Naby Keita, although the latter returned here.
One of the standout things Klopp said when he signed his new contract until 2024 last December was that he couldn’t wait to mould his next great Liverpool team, his Reds 2.0.
Williams and Jones – two players born in the same week in early 2001, and mentored by a man who was in the thick of the action almost two decades ago – might well end up having big parts to play in that future.
They’ve got a part to play in the present too though, and more opportunities will deservedly come their way.
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