Caoimhín Kelleher’s display proves he cannot stay in Alisson’s shadow forever

If the Cork goalkeeper is to reach his potential, he needs to be first choice - at Liverpool or elsewhere

What now? At Wembley on Sunday Caoimhín Kelleher produced the greatest performance of his career, two years after he produced what used to be the greatest performance of his career, on the same stage. After both games, Jurgen Klopp described him as the “best number two in the world.” At what point does that cease to be a title worth holding? Now? Long before now?

How good was Kelleher on Sunday? You might prefer numbers to adjectives. Whatever you think about numbers, they don’t have an opinion. They’re cold. According to Kelleher saved 2.95 xG for shots on target, a metric that captures the likelihood of a goal being scored in situations where the goalkeeper is the clear second favourite.

To put that in context, a goalkeeper has only achieved those numbers four times in Europe’s top five leagues in the last seven seasons. You might need to read those numbers again. Then consider how many thousands of games were blended into that statistic. His performance on Sunday was a monumental freak.

The expected goals metric was first applied to English League Cup games in 2018 and in that time the team with the highest and second highest xG, without scoring, is Chelsea. On both occasions Kelleher was the opposition goalie.


How much longer can he stay in Alisson’s shadow? How much more can he learn without being the number one - at Liverpool or somewhere else? The simple answer is that he can’t wait any longer. He needs to be under pressure, week-in, week-out. He needs to make the kind of mistakes that will inevitably come with more exposure. How else can he take the next step in his development?

Sunday’s game was his fourth start in a row, which is the longest run of consecutive starts in his Liverpool career. Kelleher and Klopp have spoken in the past about the importance of “rhythm” for goalkeepers. Before Christmas he had a run of three games, which included a 4-3 home victory over Fulham in the Premier League. That night, Kelleher was generally deemed culpable for two of the goals.

Alisson was still unavailable for the next Premier League game, away to Sheffield United, and Klopp knew that he needed to stand up for the understudy. In his prematch press conference he teased out the goals that Liverpool had conceded and in absolving Kelleher he quoted Alisson and the goalkeeping coaches.

He spoke, too, about the club’s goalkeeping “philosophy,” which was another plank in his defence of Kelleher. Without saying it, what he said was: if you think he was at fault for those goals, you know nothing. Kelleher was foot perfect in keeping a clean sheet at Brammall Lane. For the next Premier League match Alisson was back.

When Kelleher reflects on the season, though, that match against Fulham will be as important as his tour de force at Wembley on Sunday. Liverpool led twice in that game but were losing with three minutes of normal time remaining. He must have felt the weight of that. He must have known that he would be blamed for two of the goals. He needs more experiences like that.

Fulham were Liverpool’s opponents in the semi-final of the League Cup too and Kelleher acquitted himself well in those games. After the second leg at Craven Cottage Klopp described Kelleher as a “top, top, top, top goalie,” but he also said that “he’s not smiling a lot – at least when I’m around.”

It was widely interpreted as a coded reference to Kelleher’s frustrations, even though Klopp had passed a similar remark after a League Cup game against Derby 14 months earlier. “He’s a very grounded boy,” Klopp said that night, “but he rarely smiles.”

That game went to penalties and Kelleher saved three. It meant that Kelleher had become the Liverpool goalie with the most shoot-out victories (4) and the most penalty shoot-out saves (6) in the club’s history. Nice. Did it change anything?

The other significance of that game was that it was his first start for Liverpool since his heroics in the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea, a full nine months earlier. Injury had played a part in his prolonged absence, but his performance against Derby didn’t kick-start his season. He started just three other games; his only Premier League start was on the last day. Kelleher couldn’t afford another season like that.

This year has been much better. He already has 16 starts, which is nearly half of his career total at Liverpool, and with Alisson not expected to return to fitness until the end of March Kelleher will be given a nourishing run of games.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, though, it is time for Kelleher to leave Anfield. Kelleher is 25; Alisson’s latest contract takes him to 2027. Whoever is managing Liverpool next season is there any question that Alisson will still be the first-choice keeper? None.

Nottingham Forest had a £15 million bid for Kelleher rejected in the January transfer window and Celtic were reportedly knocked back last summer when they made enquiries. With Joe Hart retiring at the end of the season Celtic are bound to renew their interest. Another Premier League team will surely enter the fray.

Where he goes in the summer will be a huge decision. Not going anywhere would be crazy.

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Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh is a sports writer with The Irish Times