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.
Class and fitness eventually told, as Georginio Wijnaldum, Mané and Mohamed Salah each found the net in a quickfire second-half salvo.
This was a surreal occasion that owed much 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, several of whom were so young that they had to be dropped off at the stadium by their parents before kick-off.
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 Villa’s under-23 manager, Mark Delaney. He had to include four under-18 players, since several of the club’s most promising under-23s were among those isolating, having trained 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 rather than progress to the next round.
Jürgen Klopp was not minded to show mercy to the hosts. Nor to make any concessions 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 here 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, explaining it was the one he planned to use before being told on Thursday about the unavailability of Villa’s first team. That meant novice home players’ first taste of senior football would entail trying to subdue a front line consisting of Salah, Mané and Takumi Minamino. Villa were undaunted.
However, 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 push Mané’s follow-up on to the post.
Villa attacked again moments later, with Barry feeding Kesler, whose dainty cross to the back post forced Neco Williams to intervene to prevent a close-range finish from Lamare Bogarde, nephew of Winston.
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, scurrying down the right before cutting on to his left foot and drilling in a low shot from the edge of the area. Onodi saved well. 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 impeccably, lashing a low shot into the net from the edge of the box. Mortifyingly for Klopp’s men, the teams were level at half-time.
Klopp had to summon reinforcements, introducing Thiago Alcãntara 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 thoughts of a shock on the hour, guiding a low shot into the net after nimble work by Salah and Minamino. Then Liverpool pulled away, with Mané and Salah each scoring to make it 4-1 within five minutes.