WELL, we needn’t have worried too much about the integrity of the FA Cup, after all.
Instead, without so much as ‘lend us your ball, Mister’, 17-year-old Louie Barry conjured a vintage example of this competition’s fabled magic and equalised against the champions of England.
As if to emphasize the ridiculous inexperience of Aston Villa’s side, Barry had managed to combine two schoolboy haircuts – a pudding basin and a short back and sides.
Yet when he was sent through by a gorgeous Callum Rowe through-ball, Barry raced clear, lashed home and slid over to celebrate like a seasoned pro.
Every member of this fresh-faced Villa side were making their full debuts for the club, after a Covid outbreak had sidelined Dean Smith and his entire first-team squad.
Men against boys this may literally have been – with several of the home team having been dropped off at the ground by their parents – yet somehow Villa were level at half-time.
If Jurgen ‘Kindergarten’ Klopp had sent out a strong team hoping for them to act as ruthless playground bullies, then he was kept waiting anxiously for an hour before the kids were finally put to bed by a flurry of three goals in four minutes.
Whether this third-round match should have taken place was a matter of pre-match debate – and the Cup is certainly being treated as a second-class competition, not allowing for postponements when a club is ravaged by Covid.
Yet the first hour will never be forgotten by those academy youngsters sent out by Villa Under-23s boss Mark Delaney.
Tottenham’s visit to eighth-tier Marine on Sunday had been billed as the biggest FA Cup mismatch of all time.
Yet that had reckoned without this, the product of ten positive Covid tests among Villa’s senior professionals – with boss Dean Smith and three of his coaching team also having to self-isolate.
Liverpool can rightly argue that they had been forced to field a youth team of their own here for a Carabao Cup quarter-final last season, while their first team contested the Club World Cup.
The domestic cup competitions were being squeezed into oblivion before Covid – but this weekend is bringing a whole new level of farce.
Klopp, in King Herod mode, named a stronger side than usual for the early rounds of a Cup – helped by a 13-day break in Premier League fixtures, culminating in next Sunday’s title six-pointer against Manchester United.
Several of Villa’s better academy players were not even available, as they had been training with the infected first team.
But Delaney’s lads strode out, squad numbers ranging from 37 to 70, as if a troupe of mascots had arrived without the actual footballers to escort them.
None had made a previous senior appearance for Villa, though wide-boy Ben Chrisene had played league football for Exeter last season, aged 15.
He was one of four Villa starters who hadn’t even been born when James Milner made his league debut for Leeds in 2002.
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Liverpool were ahead within four minutes, a Curtis Jones cross finding Sadio Mane, who had snuck in between Villa’s central defenders to score with a free header – yet this was a night when schoolboy errors were entirely forgivable.
Gini Wijnaldum was soon guilty of a horrible miss – attempting to be too flash when a simple finish would have sufficed.
But after Villa’s keeper Akos Onodi made a brilliant full-stretch one-handed save from Fabinho, the kids enjoyed a very decent spell, causing stress in the Liverpool defence and forcing a couple of corners.
Onodi pulled off another fine save to deny Salah and then suddenly, with astonishing cheek, Villa levelled five minutes before the break.
Rowe’s excellent through-ball caught Rhys Williams the wrong side of Barry – who’d had a short spell at Barcelona last season.
And the striker advanced to lash his shot past Caoimhin Kelleher and into the far corner.
In response to this impudence, Klopp sent on Thiago Alcantara – formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich – in a desperate attempt to restore order.
When Onodi made a rare blunder, Salah’s tap-in was ruled out for a foul.
But on the hour, Liverpool finally regained the lead when Salah and Takumi Minamino combined for Wijnaldum to side-foot home from the edge of the box.
Klopp sent on Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri and within four minutes it was 4-1 – Shaqiri twice playing a support role as Mane added a looping header and Salah produced a cool finish.
Yet the parents of these Villa kids will have been proud when they picked up their boys.
And the kids would have been telling all the bedtime fairytales.
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