BIRMINGHAM, England -- Even when it is battling unprecedented difficulties and uncertainty caused by the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the FA Cup still manages to lift football's morale.
On a night when Aston Villa's youngsters were expected to be rolled over by Liverpool, the kids gave Jurgen Klopp's Premier League champions a real scare before eventually succumbing to their A-list quality. It was 4-1 in the end, but don't be fooled by the scoreline. Liverpool left Villa Park, having safely booked a place in the fourth round, only after being made to fight for their victory.
That this tie actually went ahead was an achievement in itself considering the backdrop of a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections, not just within the English game, but in wider society in the U.K. Shortly before this game kicked off, the U.K. government announced 1,325 COVID-related deaths over the past 24 hours -- a worrying record high -- with 68,053 positive tests over the same period.
Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce had said earlier in the day that it felt "morally wrong" for football to be continuing at a time when the country was in the middle of a health crisis, especially when so many positive cases were being recorded in the game's supposedly COVID-secure bubble. Villa were forced to play this game without their entire first-team squad following 14 positive cases at their training ground on Thursday. Nine of that number were players, with the coaching staff making up the other five, so in the absence of isolating manager Dean Smith, youth-team coach Mark Delaney took charge of a side with an average age of just over 18 years.
Some will question whether Villa should have been put in the position of having to play and if the FA Cup has been compromised because of the disruption caused by COVID-19, but cup romance will have to take a back seat this season. Other third-round ties have been impacted by the pandemic, with Southampton's game against Shrewsbury being postponed due to a significant outbreak at the EFL League One club. Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday's ties are in doubt after the closure of the two Championship clubs' training grounds, while Derby County visit Chorley without their first-team players and interim manager Wayne Rooney because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
With the English FA warning that ties risked being forfeited if a club was unable to field at least 14 fit players -- an insistence borne out of the need to simply get the games played without sparking a fixture pile-up -- Villa were forced to turn to the kids simply to honour this fixture. And make no mistake, Delaney's team were kids. Due to COVID protocols, the players had to arrive separately and, according to Villa chief executive Christian Purslow, the majority were dropped off at the ground by the parents because their sons were either too young to drive themselves or had yet to pass their driving test.
And when they went 1-0 down inside three minutes, following Sadio Mane's header, Villa's youngsters looked like they were about to taken to school the long way round by the Premier League champions. Having suffered a 5-0 Carabao Cup quarterfinal defeat here in December 2019 after fielding an U-23 side due to a clash with Liverpool's FIFA Club World Cup commitments in Qatar, manager Jurgen Klopp named a strong team, perhaps to dish out revenge for that heavy defeat 13 months ago.
October's 7-2 Premier League defeat here may also have been in his mind when Klopp picked his starting eleven. But rather than cave in after falling behind, Villa's kids responded with bravery and determination to make Liverpool work hard for their victory.
"First of all we have to say that the kids did really well, so that's good. We had football problems, and in the second half we solved those football problems with football. We needed a little bit longer, but from then on it was completely clear and completely comfortable and completely how it should have been," Klopp said.
Goalkeeper Akos Onodi, 19, made a number of impressive saves to keep Liverpool at bay, while 18-year-old Mamadou Sylla produced a last-ditch challenge to deny Jordan Henderson when the Liverpool captain looked set to score from close range. Sylla was impressive throughout, as were full-back Callum Rowe -- an old-stager at 21 -- and goal scorer Louie Barry.
"We're all very proud, as a club, as coaches and as players," said Delaney. "It was a monumental effort really, considering what the players have had to go through in the past couple of days."
Barry, 17, arrived from Barcelona in an £880,000 transfer last January after a brief spell in Spain following a move from boyhood club West Bromwich Albion. The forward is tipped for great things by those who have seen him develop in the Midlands, and he lived up to the hype with his goal, which saw him hold off the attentions of defender Rhys Williams to latch onto Rowe's pass before calmly slotting past keeper Caoimhin Kelleher.
"We said if Louie got a chance, he'd put it away because he's a natural goalscorer. We see it in training every day, but to do it on this stage was impressive," Delaney said.
Barry's goal ensured Villa went in level at half-time, but Liverpool's superior quality, experience and fitness was always going to tell, especially once Thiago Alcantara came off the bench at the start of the second half to bring some control to their game. And by the time the clock had hit the 65-minute mark, Liverpool had pulled clear, going 4-1 ahead with goals from Georginio Wijnaldum, Mane and Mohamed Salah.
By that stage, Liverpool were safely into the next round, but this wasn't the stroll that many had predicted prior to the game. Villa, a seven-time FA Cup winner, made it competitive and spared the FA the embarrassment of a huge defeat for one the competition's most successful clubs because of ciurcumstances beyond their control.
In such difficult times, football and the FA Cup are simply battling to get through as best they can, with little control over the situation they are in. Despite losing, Aston Villa gave the game a much-needed boost with their performance. In the weeks ahead, football will need more uplifting moments and spirited performances.