Liverpool's best player! Teenage star Stefan Bajcetic has Jurgen Klopp and Mo Salah singing his praises

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Stefan Bajcetic Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2022-23
The 18-year-old Spaniard has been a rare positive in a season of disappointment at Anfield - and his fan club is growing by the week

The ovation was both long and deserved, as Anfield rose to salute a performance, and a player, good enough to inspire both faith in the future and belief in the present.

Liverpool fans have spent most of this season looking for light amid the darkness and, in Stefan Bajcetic, they have certainly found some.

The 18-year-old’s man-of-the-match display against Everton in Monday night’s Merseyside derby served only to reinforce the feeling that, 13 games into his senior career, the young Spaniard is very much here to stay.

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“A top boy,” was how Jurgen Klopp described the youngster, post-match, while Mohamed Salah offered an even more gushing tribute to his young colleague.

“He's a great player and a great person,” Salah, a smiling Bajcetic beside him, told Sky Sports. “He always tries to work hard and since he started playing with us, he's our best player, maybe.

"Hopefully, he stays with that confidence and just keeps going.”

Those are not empty words from the Egyptian.

Bajcetic only made his professional debut in August, but he has started each of Liverpool’s last five matches, playing with maturity, confidence and conviction in a side which has been lacking all three. His performance against Everton, an eye-catching mix of steel and swagger, was his best yet.

“Outstanding,” said Jamie Carragher on commentary. Over on Instagram, another Reds legend, Steven Gerrard, made his feelings clear. “Brilliant,” he commented beneath a post confirming Bajcetic’s man-of-the-match selection.

Carragher and Gerrard, of course, know what it’s like to break into Liverpool’s first team as a teenager, and to make an early impact.

Carragher scored on his full debut for the club as an 18-year-old, while Gerrard’s potential was clear from the moment he started tackling all-comers and spraying the ball to all corners on his first Anfield start.

That game was against Celta Vigo, Bajcetic’s home-town club and the one which helped mould him into the player he is today.

He joined at the age of nine, and his father, the former Serbian international Srdan Bajcetic, spent three years there between 1994 and 1997, playing alongside Mazinho, the father of current Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara.

Bajcetic moved to Liverpool at the end of 2020, the Reds completing a deal on New Year’s Eve, hours before the United Kingdom officially left the European Union and new Premier League rules prohibiting visas for Under-18 players came into effect. 

Their academy director, Alex Inglethorpe, and recruitment chief, Matt Newberry, had worked hard to persuade Bajcetic to snub interest from elsewhere, notably Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.

The compensation paid to Celta of around £224,000 ($269,000) was significant enough for a 16-year-old but, a little over two years later, looks like it could end up being one of the great Liverpool bargains.

Bajcetic played mainly as a centre-back at Celta, and his early games for Liverpool’s U18 side were at the back, where his natural athleticism and prodigious aerial ability stood out immediately.

Stefan Bajcetic Liverpool Everton Premier League 2022-23

“His leap and his timing is the best I’ve seen,” one academy staff member told GOAL in the summer of 2021, after an impressive display in a friendly match at Kirkby.

He impressed enough in his first full season on Merseyside, despite seeing it cut short by a back injury, to earn a chance with Klopp’s senior squad on their pre-season trip to the Far East, and his training levels and performances in friendly matches – particularly in games against Manchester United and RB Leipzig – ensured he was quickly bumped up the pecking order. 

Injuries and circumstance meant his competitive debut arrived swiftly, a 20-minute run-out in the 9-0 win over Bournemouth in August, and just over two weeks later he was making his Champions League bow against Ajax, replacing Thiago in a substitution which must have brought a smile to the face of both players’ fathers.

His first start came in a League Cup tie against Derby at Anfield in November, in which he demonstrated his fearlessness by stepping up first in a penalty shootout. His effort was saved, but his character was noted by Klopp and his staff. 

He started Liverpool’s first game after the World Cup, too, but was substituted at half-time having failed to get to grips with a Manchester City midfield trio of Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne.

No shame there, and no worries either, as four days later he emerged from the bench to seal a tight game away to Aston Villa with his first professional goal.

The struggles of others, in particular Fabinho and club captain Jordan Henderson, have meant more opportunities since, and Bajcetic has done what the likes of Carragher and Gerrard, and more recently Trent Alexander-Arnold, have done, and grasped them.

Henderson and Fabinho are fit and available, but Liverpool have a must-win Premier League clash at Newcastle on Saturday, and then a Champions League last-16 first leg against Real Madrid on Tuesday, and it would be a surprise if Bajcetic didn’t start both games.

Right now, he has to play.

“We are really happy with him,” Klopp said after the Everton game. Pep Lijnders, his assistant, has said Bajcetic is “a joy to watch”, waxing lyrical about the youngster’s tenacity, hunger and ability to read the game and stop counter-attacks.

“Sometimes the academy gives you presents,” Lijnders smiled back in November. “He is one of them.”

Bajcetic’s progress was rewarded with a new four-year contract last month, and while Liverpool plan to overhaul their midfield significantly in the summer, with Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham transfer target No.1, the hope is that the teenager will save them millions, establishing himself as a huge part of Klopp’s next great Anfield side.

Such hope and expectation, of course, must always be accompanied by a sense of reality, and it should be pointed out at this stage that Bajcetic is only a Baker’s Dozen worth of games into his senior career, and will need both patience and plenty of good fortune if he is to become a permanent Reds fixture.

There are, after all, countless tales of young players who burned brightly only to fizzle out and find their true level elsewhere.

So far, so good, though. The boy from Vigo has, in the blink of an eye, become the top boy at Anfield.

When you’re 18 and your fan club includes Klopp, Gerrard and Salah, you know you’re doing something right.