After a week of uncertainty, it was a relief to get this game on and it is the Reds who are on their way to the fourth round, but it will be a night Aston Villa’s youngsters will never forget.
With the Midlanders suffering a massive COVID-19 outbreak 48 hours before the game, the entire first team squad were made unavailable for the visit of the Premier League leaders. With the FA wanting the third round tie played, a team with an average age of 18 years and 294 days took the field at Villa Park to take on the star-studded line-up that Klopp had selected.
With Liverpool fully expected to win and to do so comfortably, it was a lose/lose situation for the Reds in some people’s eyes, especially pundits. Klopp drilled his side before the game to act professionally and get the job done quickly, but for the first 45 minutes things didn’t go to plan.
It was a bright start by the visitors who took control of the game very early on and set the tone for the evening with a consistent grip on the ball. This early possession told as Curtis Jones whipped in a pin point cross to the free Sadio Mané, who firmly planted his header into the top corner after three minutes.
Many expected the floodgates to open after this, but a determined Aston Villa rear guard, combined with some poor decision making from the Reds, saw the side in claret hold firm before they unexpectedly hit back.
In a major turn of events, the young Villian’s broke away and 17-year-old Louie Barry breezed beyond the Liverpool backline, holding off the challenge of Rhys Williams, before confidently curling the ball beyond the grasp of Kelleher and into the bottom corner. The ecstatic scenes that followed for Villa were the complete opposite to that of the Reds who, after a grilling from Milner, looked dejected and lacking confidence.
After a disappointing half and the potential for embarrassment, Klopp brought on the magician that is Thiago, to kick the side into action. His introduction changed everything. Within five minutes the side looked completely different, with his control on the game distinctly obvious. After 20 minutes of the second half, he had taken full control whilst the game was beyond the reach of the Villa’s youngsters.
Firstly, his no look ball into Shaqiri was gloriously measured before possession found its way to Wijnaldum, who caressed the ball into the bottom corner as the Reds re-took the lead. A couple of minutes later it was three, as Mané leapt above all to loop home his second of the evening.
The game was finished off after 65 minutes, as Salah turned on a sixpence to swivel home an accurate strike into the bottom corner to round off the scoring. With the Egyptian coming off a couple of difficult games, this goal will do his confidence the world of good.
With a flurry of changes dominating the final 15 minutes, the job was done from Klopp’s point of view. It wasn’t pretty for 45 minutes and it was never going to look great, but they are in the pot on Monday ready for the next round.
With everything that has happened during the week taken into consideration, the German will be happy his side came through injury free as they now prepare for Manchester United at Anfield a week on Sunday.
Klopp made six changes to the side who lost at Southampton last time out. Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thiago and Firmino were given a rest, with Kelleher, Neco Williams, Rhys Williams, James Milner, Curtis Jones and Takumi Minamino getting starts.
Here are my winners and losers from the game:
Thiago AlcântaraEmbed from Getty Images
The best player on the pitch. It is scary to see how easy he makes playing football at the highest level look. Everything looks effortless as he pulls teams apart. Even though he faced a much changed and youthful Aston Villa side, he was as ruthless as ever, making the young men look foolish as they tried to get close to him.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that most of the Villa team will have idolised the Spanish international and likely played as him in a game of FIFA such is his world class quality. All of them had a clear front row seat to his masterclass at Villa Park.
His passing was as fluent and aesthetically pleasing as ever, whilst he waltzed round opposition players like they weren’t there, his drop of the shoulder movement proving particularly effective all evening. All that was needed to seal his wonderful performance was a goal and he was inches away, as his strike with five minutes left thumped the bar.
I do not want to jump to conclusions as he has only played a handful of games, and in particular after playing Aston Villa’s u18s in this fixture, but he is becoming a key component in this Reds side. Liverpool seriously lack something without him and this has shown on several occasions during the season. I would go as far as to say that he is becoming as important as Coutinho was during that two-year spell before he departed Anfield.
After 90 minutes against Southampton and another 45 minutes against Villa, Thiago has once again found his fitness. Surely, he will make his Anfield debut in a weeks’ time against Manchester United. In my opinion, it is imperative that he does.
Jordan HendersonEmbed from Getty Images
The skipper just didn’t get going and found himself playing a role that he was clearly not comfortable in. With Liverpool dominating possession, he gradually found himself tasked as chief creator. With Curtis Jones really struggling to get himself into the game, the England international was consistently gifted the ball to cross or play that decisive pass, which he was never able to do.
He lacked any cutting edge with his through balls overhit and his crossing never meeting a Liverpool head. He looked like he ran out of ideas and was subsequently just hitting and hoping for the last ten minutes of the half.
One of these efforts cost the Reds dearly, as his lazy effort was intercepted and ten seconds later Kelleher was picking the ball out of the net, after the cool finish from the impressive Louie Barry. This is sloppiness that we do not expect from this team, and least of all from the leader.
The other side of his game of retaining possession, filtering the ball to the game changers and breaking up any opposition play was successfully completed as ever, but he didn’t really have to do much of this due to how dominant the Reds were in possession.
He was removed at half time for Thiago, which after the game clearly was the right decision. The Spaniard opened Villa up, showing Henderson how to manipulate play perfectly. The captain clearly understood his removal at the interval and looked content getting 45 minutes rest in the end.
Looking at the bigger picture, he was playing a role that was alien to him and won’t be playing it again in the future. With Manchester United next time out, he will return to his defensive, holding the ball set up and hopefully prove to be as effective as he has been all season.
Curtis JonesEmbed from Getty Images
Another poor outing for the academy graduate who looks to have completely gone off the boil in the last few of games. After getting the assist for opener, which was brilliantly measured, his performance was non-existent. He just vanished.
With him so effective when he gets on the ball, he just wasn’t asking for it off his teammates and was forcibly being given the ball in the end. He was unable to break down the back line and after the first 20 minutes failed to take any risks, just taking the safe simple option backwards when there was no need to.
Things didn’t change after the break as he continued to perform with no confidence in his abilities. He was pulled off after the hour mark for Shaqiri, who impressively helped Thiago in pulling the tiring Villa side apart.
The young scouser has been impressive since forcing himself into the starting XI in August. However, his performances have significantly dropped since the middle of December. With Thiago, Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum all currently in better form, the 19-year-old will find himself fighting again for his starting place in the team once again.
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