Aston Villa vs Liverpool: Youngsters well beaten in EFL Cup but organisers are only ones embarrassed
Aston Villa 5-0 Liverpool: The visitors, fielding the youngest line-up in the club’s history, were predictably outmuscled and outplayed by the home side
Predictably, Liverpool’s youngest-ever starting line-up was comfortably beaten while the seniors are away competing at the Club World Cup in Qatar. Aston Villa progress to this year’s EFL Cup semi-finals after a brace by Jonathan Kodjia, an unfortunate Morgan Boyes own goal, a late Wesley strike and a Conor Hourihane free-kick, which Kodjia attempted to claim.
To lose by five unanswered goals is a heavy defeat in any circumstances. But the balance of play was not as one-sided as the scoreline, meaning Neil Critchley - Jurgen Klopp’s stand-in for the evening - could tell his players to leave Villa Park with their heads held high. The only ones embarrassed here were the game’s authorities, as they are the ones responsible for the fixture pile-up which resulted in this warped take on a domestic cup quarter-final.
Liverpool named five debutants, with their line-up’s average age only 19 years, six months and three days. Their average squad number was 67, which actually belongs to Harvey Elliott. The 16-year-old is the likeliest member of Critchley’s side to become a first-team regular and was central to a surprisingly purposeful and bright start by the visitors.
Elliott stung goalkeeper Orjan Nyland’s palms nine minutes in having drifted into the penalty area unchallenged. The summer signing from Fulham had already presented Luis Longstaff with an opportunity, albeit from an offside position, and Herbie Kane forced Nyland to save with his feet.
But once ahead, Villa took control. Their breakthrough was preventable from Caoimhin Keelher’s perspective, though Kodija’s run across his line of vision did not help. The young goalkeeper was left unsighted for Conor Hourihane’s free-kick from the right and allowed the cross-cum-shot to pass through him. Kodjia claimed to have taken a telling touch.
Minutes later, Boyes would suffer a stroke of terrible misfortune. Ahmed El Mohamady’s cross deflected off the Wales Under-19 international’s ankle, looping high over Kelleher’s head and dropping a yard inside the far post. It was the type of freak goal that a team concedes once every few years or so, but it fell on Boyes’ senior debut.
Young players will make mistakes. Sepp van den Berg - Liverpool’s only summer signing other than Elliott - was culpable for the third, losing the ball while out of position in midfield and thereby allowing Kodjia a free run at goal. One-on-one with Kelleher, he slipped a finish beyond the diving goalkeeper. This one was certainly his goal.
There was time for another before the break. In the final minute of the half, neat Villa interplay on the edge of the area allowed Jota to square wide for El Mohamady and Kodjia turned the Egyptian’s low cross in at the near post. Villa were four up at half time after only having three shots on goal.
The second half was more sedate and it is to Liverpool’s credit that they almost managed to draw it 0-0, despite the intensity of the contest and the cramp mounting in their legs. Kane and Elliott went close to scoring consolations, but Nyland’s performance in the Villa goal warranted a clean sheet.
Dean Smith introduced Wesley with just over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, in the hope that his £22m striker would end a nine-goal drought. With virtually the last kick of the game, he slipped in behind Van den Berg and swept the ball past Kelleher to receive a much-needed confidence boost.
Critchley talked about this as an opportunity for his young players to impress and potentially join their elders in the Gulf. Elliott, Van den Berg and the promising Ki-Jana Hoever could well fly out in the next few days.
But for most of Liverpool’s players, this was about learning lessons on what it takes to compete at senior level. It will be an invaluable, unforgettable experience for them, even if it ended in an unfortunate but predictable defeat.