Never in doubt.
Covid meant that Villa were down to their kids, after an outbreak in their first team squad. Role reversal from last season’s Carabao Cup, when our Club World Championship commitments meant we had to field our youngsters. Of course, we lost that one 5-0 and plenty were expecting us to score at least that many tonight. Villa’s youngsters hadn’t played since November and they were obviously outclassed on paper. Still, as we all know, football isn’t played on paper.
Kelleher came in for Alisson; Fabinho was the only back four regular to start, with both Neco and Rhys Williams starting and Milner coming in at left back to give Robbo a rest. Jones returned to the midfield and Bobby was given a break, with Taki coming into the starting XI, although he somewhat surprisingly started on the left flank with Sadio going down the middle.
The Senegalese international opened the scoring after just four minutes, heading home powerfully from Curtis’ crafted cross; Sadio was fine having appeared to have taken a knock while scoring. Millie went down soon afterwards after an accidental elbow but was fine to resume, then Gini missed a sitter.
Any Reds supporters who were expecting the floodgates to open would have been disappointed with the rest of the half. The visitors, as expected, almost monopolised possession but couldn’t fashion any more clear chances. Salah might have done better with a couple of chances and our inability to penetrate the opposition defences was punished five minutes before the break as Louie Barry burst through to equalise. Rhys Williams was left looking very slow, not for the first time.
As the players trudged off for their halftime oranges, the whole footballing world must have been wondering how Aston Villa’s kids were holding the Premier League champions to a draw; surely it couldn’t get any worse for the visitors?
Henderson was hauled off at half-time, the atypically ineffective captain being replaced by Thiago. Fabinho headed straight at Onodi; Mo then had a goal disallowed for kicking the ball out of the young keeper’s hands- to be fair, he looked offside as well.
Fortunately, Gini had put on his shooting boots during the break and he side footed past Onodi from the edge of the box on the hour mark to restore the visitors’ lead. And, three minutes later, Mané scored with a lovely looping header to give us a two goal lead, the assist coming from the lesser spotted Shaqiri.
Valiantly though they had fought, Villa’s youngsters seemed to hit a brick wall at the hour mark and Mo soon turned and fired past the keeper to make it four, with another Shaqiri assist. Three goals in six minutes- game over.
Next up is a nine day break before we entertain our friends from Salford at Anfield next Sunday. There is every chance we will be three points behind them at kick off, seeing that they face lowly Burnley in the league on Tuesday night; three points is a must next weekend but on our current form we’ll be lucky to get even a draw.
Let’s be honest; despite the ultimately comfortable victory, we were dross in the first half. I hope that it’s all part of Jürgen’s cunning plan: play shite for a month to lull the enemy into a false sense of security and then batter the Mancs next weekend.
MOTM: Those fine people at Glen Moray distillery in Elgin. This wonderful Speyside single malt goes from strength to strength and their Heritage 18 year old is simply beautiful, with smooth toffee notes and a lingering finish full of caramelised fruit. Spiffing.