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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Paul Gorst

Liverpool beat Manchester United to £250,000 signing and could include him in pre-season

As Liverpool's pre-season plans begin to take shape, one or two from the Academy ranks may just be allowing their minds to wander.

After all, the summer months have been fertile ground for young players looking to make an impression at first-team level under Jurgen Klopp.

It's almost two years since Billy Koumetio caught the eye of the Reds manager while on tour in Austria. So much so, in fact, that the French centre-back earned the nickname of 'Billy the Kid' from Klopp during his stint with the seniors.

Those around the Austrian camp spoke of the defender being polite, friendly and keen to learn from his more esteemed colleagues. And with Koumetio determined to grab the opportunity that had been afforded to him by a lack of options at centre-half, the former US Orleans youngster set about trying to make his mark.

Replacing Sepp van den Berg on 68 minutes of a friendly win against Stuttgart, the tall centre-back quickly acclimatised alongside Nat Phillips at the heart of the Liverpool defence.

His work out with the first team and subsequent development when back in the junior ranks eventually led to him making his senior debut in the 1-1 draw with Midtjylland in the Champions League in December 2020. That was followed up by a start in the memorable penalty-shootout win over Leicester in the Carabao Cup shortly before Christmas last year.

Last year, Koumetio was once again with the senior side when they reported for training in Austria back in July alongside his Kirkby Academy colleagues such as Jake Cain, Leighton Clarkson, Owen Beck, Kaide Gordon, Mateusz Musialowski, Tyler Morton and Conor Bradley.

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Despite the senior debuts for Beck, Gordon and Bradley that have followed since, it is Morton who can lay claim to making the biggest impact given he has since played nine times for the first team this term.

Clearly, then, pre-season is the opportunity to be grasped by those who get the call up. So there will be plenty of players keeping one eye on that trip to Thailand later this summer.

It was announced on Thursday the Reds are getting set to visit Bangkok for the first time since 2015 where they will play Manchester United at the Rajamangala Stadium.

And one player who will be keeping his fingers crossed and his head down ahead of a potential call will be Stefan Bajcetic, whose impressive performances go on over a year into his Liverpool tenure.

Bajcetic was attracting the interest of both Liverpool and Manchester United when the Reds took the plunge just before the start of 2021 to fend off their historic rivals and win a race against time.

As the new post-Brexit transfer rules came into focus which would have prohibited the ability to sign players under the age of 18 from overseas, Liverpool swooped and brought the then 16-year-old Bajcetic to Merseyside.

Anfield negotiators were left with a little over a week of 2020 to thrash out a deal with Celta Vigo, who Bajcetic had joined in his early teens, and were able to do so without United stealing a late march as 2021 rolled into view.

The versatile Spaniard initially started life as a centre-half at Kirkby but has found himself playing a defensive midfielder in recent months. Capable of performing at both U18 and U23 level, the teenager's list of admirers is growing.

And having signed a first professional contract back in late November, Bajcetic is keen to go from strength to strength on Merseyside as he looks to take the next steps.

For a player who is perhaps yet to settle on a defined position, the chance to work alongside Liverpool's senior centre-backs and, in particular, defensive midfielder Fabinho, will be a potentially invaluable experience this year.

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"I think he is a good lad, he is working really hard and maybe, you know, they think that he is a good young player to be involved with the first team in the short term," says one source. "He has only been with the club a year or so but they definitely like him.

"The most important moment now is about seeing how a player works in the next year or so. Sometimes a player is good, but there are other factors around that affect [development]. Like sometimes a player cannot settle and it can be difficult. But let's see how it goes now Stefan, he is still a young lad."

Elite development coach Vitor Matos is known as 'the connector' between Academy ranks and the first-team set-up at the AXA Centre and he will no doubt keep Klopp and his staff up to date with the most promising youngsters when it comes to deciding who to take on the pre-season tours this summer.

Assistant boss Pep Lijnders, however, has already indicated that he would like Bajcetic to be part of the young contingent who fly out to Thailand in July.

"We look all the time at the Academy," Lijnders said in January. Our Under-18s played against Burnley in the FA Youth Cup (earlier that week) and we had Bobby Clark, Luke Chambers, Stefan Bajcetic, they all stand out.

"I hope they come with us during the pre-season because it is important for them to have a proper pre-season to know exactly how we want to do things. At this moment we have Kaide Gordon with us who has a goal in him, who has this outside creation in one-on-one situations and combination play.

"We always look at our Academy because we think a lot of our icons came from there and a lot of the best players in the history of Liverpool Football Club came from there and we have proven that. So I think a coach should be judged a lot more on this to be honest."

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