Sadio Mané double sees Liverpool past bold and youthful Aston Villa

This was supposed to be a walkover, even after the tie got the go-ahead. But for 45 minutes Liverpool were driven to the brink of humiliation by little known but highly impressive upstarts, with Aston Villa forced to field a team of players who had never contested a senior match.

The youngsters shrugged off the concession of an early goal to Sadio Mané to go in level at half-time thanks to a lovely equaliser by 17-year-old Louie Barry. “I’ve never been so proud of a team,” said Barry later. “My family were probably screaming at the TV. When I scored I actually thought: ‘We might even have a chance here.’” Class and fitness eventually told, as Georginio Wijnaldum, Mané and Mohamed Salah each found the net in a quickfire second-half salvo.

“We were a bit rusty at the start but the second half went exactly as we wanted,” said a relieved Jürgen Klopp. “There was not a lot for us to win apart from going to the next round.”

This was a surreal occasion that owed more to the strangeness of our times than to any magic of the Cup. After Villa’s entire first-team squad – and anyone in close contact with them, including Dean Smith and the senior team’s assistants, physios and kitman – were forced into isolation by a Covid outbreak that led to nine players and five staff members testing positive this week, the hosts had to hastily assemble a side made up of youth team players.

Full-back Jake Walker, 20, had to be recalled from a loan stint at Alvechurch in the Southern Premier League Central Division to help Villa complete their team sheet, which was picked by the club’s under-23s manager, Mark Delaney. He started four under-18 players, since several of the club’s most promising under-23s were among those isolating after training with the senior team earlier in the week. For Villa, then, this was primarily an administrative duty rather than a sporting contest, the most pressing concern being to fulfil a fixture. But it turned into an encounter from which the club can take heart. “That was a monumental effort considering what the players have had to go through in the last couple of days,” Delaney said.

It was all the more commendable because Klopp’s approach made no concessions to the hosts’ predicament. Nor to his own team’s gruelling schedule – Maybe he was aiming for a hefty win to inflate confidence after his team’s recent wobbles in the Premier League, or perhaps he wanted to avenge Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat at Villa Park earlier in the season or the 5-0 defeat that an experienced Villa side inflicted on a young Liverpool team in the Carabao Cup last year. Whatever his motivation, Klopp sent out a surprisingly strong side. Villa were undaunted.

Youthful dreams of the mother of all Cup upsets seemed to evaporate after less than four minutes. Mané crept between two defenders to meet a lovely cross from the right by Curtis Jones and nod into the net.

Liverpool monopolised possession in the early stages but, to their credit, Villa’s players defended with a cohesion and focus at odds with their unsettling buildup. And gradually they grew bolder, venturing forward in the 19th minute with a well worked move that culminated in Kaine Kesler unloading a shot from 20 yards, albeit one that was charged down before it reached the box.

Liverpool found embarrassingly few openings. But they would have increased their lead if not for excellent goalkeeping by Akos Onodi, who made a one-handed save to deny Fabinho before springing to his feet to save Mané’s follow-up.

In an opening from which Villa could take much more heart than Liverpool, Salah made few inroads against the rookie home defence. He finally threatened in the 35th minute but Onodi made another good save. And then came the sensational equaliser. It was anything but a fluke.

Callum Rowe created it with a strong run followed by a visionary pass from midfield that caught Rhys Williams off guard. Barry ran away from the centre-back and held his nerve to finish like an seasoned marksman, guiding a low shot into the net from 15 yards.

Klopp summoned reinforcements, introducing Thiago Alcântara for the second period. Liverpool pushed their possession statistics even higher but still struggled to pick a way through a defence led brilliantly by Mungo Bridge and Dominic Revan. All the same, a Liverpool breakthrough began to look inevitable as Villa began to tire, their players having only returned to training this week after being given the festive period off to study.

Wijnaldum banished the prospect of a shock on the hour, guiding a low shot into the net after nimble work by Salah and Minamino.

Then Liverpool pulled away. Mané sent a clever looping header into the net from a nice cross by Xherdan Shaqiri before Salah swivelled and shot into the net from the edge of the area to make it 4-1.

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