BIRMINGHAM, England – While facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the FA Cup is managing to boost morale.
On the night that Aston Villa’s youngsters were about to be overrun by Liverpool, the lads scared off Premier League champions Jurgen Klopp before succumbing to the quality of the A side’s list. In the end, the score was 4-1, but make no mistake. Liverpool left Villa Park after securing their place in the fourth round, but had to fight for the win.
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The fact that this draw actually took place is an achievement in itself in the context of a dramatic increase in the incidence of COVID-19 infection, not only in the English game but also in the wider UK community. Just prior to this match, the UK government announced 1,325 VIDOC-related deaths in the past 24 hours – an alarming record – out of 68,053 positive tests in the same period.
Earlier, Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce had said it was morally wrong to continue playing football at a time when the country was in the midst of a health crisis, especially when so many positive cases had been reported in the supposedly safe bubble game for VIDOC. Villa was forced to play this match without his entire first team after 14 positive cases were found on the training ground on Thursday. Nine of them were players, the other five were managers. In the absence of lone manager Dean Smith, youth coach Mark Delaney has taken charge of the team with an average age of just over 18.
Some question whether Villa should have played and whether the FA Cup was in jeopardy because of COVID-19’s elimination, but the romance of the cup has to take a backseat this season. Other games in the third round were hit by a pandemic, with Southampton’s game against Shrewsbury being postponed due to a major outbreak at the EFL Ligue 1 club. Middlesbrough and Sheffield on Wednesday are in doubt following the closure of the league’s two practice pitches, while Derby County travel to Chorley without first-team players and interim coach Wayne Rooney due to the COWID-19 outbreak.
The English Football Association has warned that matches could be cancelled if the club did not field at least 14 healthy players – the request was prompted by the need to simply play without setting fire to a pile of objects – and Villa had to turn to the boys to simply honour the object. And make no mistake, the Delaney team was made up of children. Due to COVID protocols, players had to travel separately and according to Villa’s director, Christian Perslow, most players were dropped off by their parents because their sons were too young to drive themselves or had not yet obtained their driver’s license.
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ON SATURDAY, THAT 9
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And when they lost 1-0 to a Sadio Mane header three minutes later, it looked like the Premier League champions would not be going to school for a long time. After a 5-0 quarter-final defeat in the Carabao Cup here in December 2019, when the U-23s were affected by Liverpool’s World Cup commitments in Qatar, coach Jurgen Klopp called a strong team, perhaps to bounce back from that heavy defeat 13 months ago.
The 7-2 Premier League defeat here in October may also have been on his mind as Klopp took his starting eleven. But instead of collapsing after falling behind, Villa’s children responded with courage and determination and made Liverpool work hard for their victory.
First, we have to say that the kids did really well, so that’s good. We had problems with the football, and in the second half we solved those problems with the football. We needed a little more time, but since then everything has been clear and comfortable and exactly as it should be, Ms Klopp said.
Nineteen-year-old goalkeeper Akos Onodi kept Liverpool at bay with some impressive saves, while 18-year-old Mamadou Sylla had to work hard at the last second to deny Jordan Henderson when the Liverpool captain almost scored from close range. Silla was impressive throughout the game, as was defender Callum Rowe – a 21-year veteran – and striker Louis Barry.
We are all very proud as a club, as coaches and as players, Mr Delaney said. It was truly a monumental performance considering what the actors have been through over the past few days.
Barry, 17, joined FC Barcelona for £880,000 last January after a short stay in Spain where he left his youth club, West Bromwich Albion. The striker, destined for great things, has been inspired by those who watched him grow up in the Midlands. He lived up to the excitement of his goal when he caught the eye of defender Rhys Williams and picked up a pass from Rowe before calmly flicking the ball past goalkeeper Kaoimin Kelleher.
We said if Louis has a chance, he’ll take it because he’s a born goalie. We see it every day in practice, but it was impressive to do it on this stage, Delaney said.
Barry’s goal allowed Villa to equalise at half-time, but Liverpool’s superior quality, experience and fitness speak volumes, especially after Thiago Alcantara left the bench early in the second half and brought some control to the game. In the 65th minute. Liverpool led 4-1 from the first minute thanks to goals from Georginio Wijnaldum, Mane and Mohamed Salah.
At that point, Liverpool were well on their way to the next round, but it wasn’t the walkout many had planned for the game. Seven-time FA Cup winners Villa has made the game competitive and saved the FA the embarrassment of a huge defeat to one of the competition’s most successful clubs due to circumstances beyond its control.
In difficult times like these, football and the FA Cup just struggle to cope as best they can, with little control over the situation they find themselves in. Despite the defeat, Aston Villa’s performance gave the game a boost. Football needs more highlights and energetic performances in the coming weeks.
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