A curveball was thrown the way of Aston Villa on the eve of the clash against Liverpool after a ‘significant’ outbreak of coronavirus swept through their first-team squad.
It left the game in doubt before members of their youth team stepped up to the plate, leaving many to assume it would be a procession for Jurgen Klopp‘s men.
Sadio Mane made it look like it was to be the case against a side with an average age of 18 and 294 days, after opening the scoring with a well-worked header in the fourth minute.
But dominance in possession carved little in the way of clear cut opportunities and the youngsters pulled one back on the cusp of half-time through the highly-rated Louie Barry in what was an embarrassing opening half for the Reds.
The 4-1 win was hardly convincing and Villa’s youth deserve credit for making it so, with James Milner praising their togetherness and quality post-match:
“A good set of lads, honest, worked hard for each other, quality.
“They put a shift in – we expected that, we didn’t want to take it for granted. First half, getting the goal, we had to keep playing.
“We got the result in the end but I think it’s not an ideal situation for either team.
“They’re good players, they’re at Aston Villa for a reason. Every single time you’re not quite there, you’re going to get punished. They took the goal and we had to lift ourselves again.”
It was a sentiment shared by Gini Wijnaldum, who scored his second goal of the season, with the Reds always cautious of playing a team with “nothing to lose”, but Liverpool got the job done by beating what was in front of them.
And now the hope is Klopp’s side can push on in the competition and it is a trophy which has not been a favourable one for the club in recent years:
“It was difficult to play in. Everyone from outside just expected us to win this game with a lot of goals but that’s not that easy.
“You play a team with nothing to lose and who are just going to give everything they have to make it as difficult as possible against us.
“It was a deserved goal for them because we didn’t defend that well and that’s what you get in football.
“At the beginning of the season, we said we wanted to play for everything and, of course, it’s difficult to do it all with the strongest team.
“But I think we did well today and I hope we can do well in the next couple of games because this is a competition we want to win.”
And while there was an equal measure of satisfaction for reaching the next stage of the competition, there were further words of praise for Villa from the champions.
The captain was quick to hail them as a “credit to themselves and the club” in a brilliant message on Instagram where he also shared his hopes of this being the start of a “good cup run”:
Fabinho, likewise, shared his congratulations for a team who will not forget the night in a hurry and wished those hit by COVID-19 in the first-team a “speedy recovery”:
Well wishes were also kindly sent by Gini as he commemorated the win:
Things also took a strange turn for James Milner as the night saw him play against old teammate Mark Delaney, who was the Villa manager, in one of the instances which showed his age.
And there was a fair bit to smile about for Thiago, with the Spaniard key to the rise in tempo in the second 45 and he chose to celebrate with a nod to “Sadio lad”:
Sadio lad ?? pic.twitter.com/l2RVB9HLbD
— Thiago Alcantara (@Thiago6) January 8, 2021
While the game was anything but a classic, it was one which injected much-needed minutes into the likes of Thiago and Shaqiri, a pairing who proved they can inject a creative spark which has been lacking in recent games.
Now, an all-important, and valuable, week of training awaits the Reds as they prepare for the visit of Man United on January 17, a must-win game.