Jurgen Klopp praised 18-year-old Stefan Bajcetic’s attitude and ability after he scored his first senior goal to seal a 3-1 win for Liverpool at Aston Villa on Monday.
The Reds got off to the flying start they craved on the Premier League’s return from the World Cup as victory cut the gap on the top four to five points.
Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk put the visitors in a commanding position before half-time.
But Klopp’s men had to endure some nervous moments in the second half after Ollie Watkins pulled a goal back for Villa before Bajcetic scored within seconds of coming off the bench.
“He’s cheeky as hell and is not worried about anything. He just plays football and he can do that exceptionally well,” said Klopp of the Spanish midfielder, who is the son of former Serbian international Srdan Bajcetic.
“He had a football-playing father so the genes are there but also the attitude, awareness and match intelligence. It’s a big pleasure to work with these boys.”
Liverpool struggled to match their standards of recent seasons during the first part of the season, but looked refreshed to inflict Unai Emery’s first league defeat since taking charge of Villa.
Salah is one of a number of Klopp’s key players who were not involved in Qatar and took just five minutes to net his 15th goal of the season.
The Egyptian swept home Andy Roberson’s pass after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s through ball had opened up the Villa defence.
Emery’s men were left to rue a host of big chances to get immediately back on level terms as Liverpool showed no sign of remedying their defensive issues so far this season.
Leon Bailey and Watkins were both guilty of wasteful finishing.
At the other end, Darwin Nunez was even more profligate despite causing chaos with his powerful running in behind the Villa backline.
The Uruguayan headed over Robertson’s inviting cross and then fired straight at Villa’s stand-in goalkeeper Robin Olsen with just the Swede to beat after Ezri Konsa’s error.
Van Dijk was not so forgiving to finally give the visitors a two-goal cushion as the Dutch defender calmly steered home Salah’s pass from a corner.
“It was a top performance in a difficult game. I think we played exceptionally well in the first half,” added Klopp.
But Villa refused to accept their fate in a breathless second half.
Watkins had the ball in the net within three minutes of the restart but had just strayed offside before firing into the far corner.
John McGinn also fluffed his lines with just goalkeeper Alisson to beat before the home side got the goal their start to the second half deserved.
Watkins made one of his more difficult chances count with a brilliant header back across goal to halve Villa’s arrears.
Liverpool’s relative lack of strength in depth compared to their competitors for a place in the top four was exposed by Klopp needing to turn two teenagers off the bench as 17-year-old Ben Doak also made his first Premier League appearance.
But Bajcetic showed a maturity beyond his years with a calm finish after Nunez had been denied once more by Olsen.