If last week’s EFL Trophy opener was akin to a baptism of fire, the lesson to be learned from Liverpool’s second group game was football can be cruel.

An injury-time goal saw a Reds under-21 side go down 3-2 at League Two side Tranmere Rovers on Tuesday evening.

It was harsh on Barry Lewtas’s team, who had dominated possession and showed clear signs of gaining from the experience of last week’s chastening 6-1 reverse at Wigan Athletic.

Liverpool were good value for the lead given to them by Jake Cain’s superb free-kick before former Everton striker James Vaughan came off the bench to score twice in two minutes, the second despite being in an obvious offside position.

The Reds appeared set for a penalty shoot-out when Luis Longstaff’s effort seven minutes from time crossed the line before being cleared.

But another ball over the top proved their undoing in the 90th minute when Stefan Payne scored with an angled drive off the far post.

Cain keeps ticking

Jake Cain could barely believe what had happened.

Barely eight yards out and completely unmarked, the midfielder blazed over what would have been the opener shortly before half-time. Heads were in hands throughout the Liverpool team.

But it says much about his mental strength and resolve that it took only five minutes of the second half for Cain to atone, curling in a superb free-kick from 25 yards into the top corner after Ben Woodburn had been fouled. He’d done similar against Derby for the U23s earlier in the month.

Cain, the 19-year-old playing on the right of the front line here, continues to demonstrate consistent signs of having stepped up a level this season, and later bamboozled the Tranmere defence with one turn inside the area before playing a part in the equaliser for Luis Longstaff.

Longstaff now has two in as many games, with his selfless efforts for the team now reaping deserved individual reward.

Van den Berg makes difference

The manner in which Liverpool capitulated in the second half at Wigan last week prompted a notable change at the heart of defence.

In came Sepp van den Berg, perhaps hinting the Dutchman would not be involved in the Carabao Cup tie against Arsenal on Thursday.

The 18-year-old hasn’t had much actual game time so far this season, and rustiness was apparent in the early stages.

But he soon adjusted, and made two vital challenges on Tranmere speedster Kaiyne Woolery in the first half.

Liam Millar of Liverpool U21s battles for possession with Sid Nelson of Tranmere Rovers
Liam Millar of Liverpool U21s battles for possession with Sid Nelson of Tranmere Rovers

The home side's aerial threat was confidently dealt with, and nor was the defender deterred when clobbered heavily in the second half.

Alongside Van den Berg, Tom Clayton was quietly assured while left-back Owen Beck was an increasingly all-action presence. Goalkeeper Vit Jaros also merits credit for a clutch of solid saves and sound handling.

At the other end, 39-year-old Joe Murphy was between the sticks in his second spell at Tranmere - his first saw him make his debut before any of the Liverpool players had been born.

Reds get stuck in

Having been bullied at Wigan last week, there was no chance of a repeat at Prenton Park.

The young Reds stood their ground and were more than happy to mix it in what became an enjoyably feisty local derby, Tranmere boss Michael Jackson vocally making clear his displeasure at some decisions.

Liverpool, though, could rightly point to a succession of wrong offside calls that ultimately contributed to their defeat.

It means the Reds have been eliminated before their final group game at Port Vale, which is scheduled for November 10.

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By then, Ben Woodburn and Liam Millar – both lively once more – are likely to be elsewhere, whether on loan or having made a permanent departure.

They won’t be the only ones, watching scouts no doubt having been impressed by a number of Reds youngsters.

Liverpool U23s are now not in action again until their Premier League 2 visit to Brighton and Hove Albion on October 17.