Liverpool lost 5-0 at Aston Villa but Harvey Elliott and co still impressed

Can a five-goal loss ever be impressive? Liverpool’s youngsters proved it was possible when thrown in at the deep end at Aston Villa. Adam Bate delivers the verdict from Villa Park.

Liverpool's youngest ever first team walk onto the pitch prior to the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Aston Villa and Liverpool FC at Villa Park on December 17, 2019

"We don't expect a result, we expect a performance."

Those were Jurgen Klopp's words in the build-up.

Ten minutes into Liverpool's Carabao Cup quarter-final against Aston Villa, this young group of players looked in the mood to deliver both as they went for the home team at Villa Park.

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Highlights of the Carabao Cup quarter-final between Aston Villa and Liverpool

Klopp had stressed that Neil Critchley and his players would have the support of the senior squad out in Qatar for the Club World Cup, but it was the vocal presence of the Liverpool supporters inside Villa Park that was most striking in the early stages of the contest.

There were gasps of admiration as Ki-Jana Hoever strolled away from danger, roars of approval as the 16-year-old Harvey Elliott ran at the Villa defence with real purpose.

The youngest Liverpool team ever. The youngest team this competition has ever seen. They were pressing and harrying in those opening moments. Herbie Kane forced a fine save from Orjan Nyland. Elliott hit the outside of the net with the follow-up shot. It was fearless stuff.

If this feels like an overreaction given how briefly parity was maintained, consider some of the stats. Liverpool not only dominated possession over the 90 minutes but they had three times as many touches inside the box in that first half an hour and four times as many shots.

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"I thought the start to the game was brilliant," said a visibly chuffed Critchley when speaking to the media afterwards. "I thought we were actually the better team for 12 or 13 minutes."

It just could not last.

Conor Hourihane curled a free-kick under the body of Caoimhin Kelleher with one of Villa's first attacks before Morgan Boyes' deflection did for the goalkeeper with their second.

Key performer: Caoimhin Kelleher

The young goalkeeper’s confidence must have taken a battering when those first two goals went in but Kelleher bounced back from that disappointment to produce a number of fine stops with hands and feet after the interval.

“He showed what a top-class goalkeeper he is and could become in the future,” said Critchley. “He pulled off some fantastic saves in the second half.”

That was enough to calm the experienced heads in an Aston Villa team bolstered by James Chester's return from injury after 11 months out. When the third and fourth goals followed, what Dean Smith called a "weird quarter-final" could well have got out of hand.

Football League chairman Rick Parry had described this as "a very pragmatic solution that first and foremost worked for Liverpool" but it probably didn't feel that way as Jonathan Kodjia was bearing down on goal yet again. Villa were threatening to inflict a heavy beating.

Four goals from three Villa shots at the halfway point meant that the scoreline was not a fair reflection of the game, but it was the reality for a young team under the spotlight.

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It was at that point that you were reminded of just how far these players had come.

All over the pitch there were stories. There was Tom Hill, a 17-year-old from Formby who has been at the club for over a decade. He was wearing the No.99 shirt.

Elsewhere there was Boyes and Luis Longstaff - members of the team that had won the FA Youth Cup with Liverpool in April, now taking their very first steps in senior football.

Tony Gallacher and Herbie Kane featured for Liverpool against Aston Villa
Image: Tony Gallacher and Herbie Kane were given their opportunity

Kane was looking to build on a season on loan in the third tier with Doncaster Rovers. Tony Gallacher, signed from Falkirk after a successful trial, was making his first senior appearance since an away day at Dumbarton two years ago. The crowd numbered 874 that afternoon. Here it was an attendance of 30,323 and he had the Holte End to contend with.

These were the boys tasked with tackling this cup quarter-final in the only competition that has delivered domestic silverware for Liverpool all decade. That was in 2012 under Sir Kenny Dalglish who was among the crowd at Villa Park. Jordan Henderson played that day. Nobody in this Liverpool team did. Most were not even teenagers at the time.

At least Kelleher, Hoever and the 17-year-old Sepp Van den Berg had the benefit of starting in the earlier rounds. Pedro Chirivella, meanwhile, had the demeanour of a veteran at 22.

But it was Elliott, the youngest player on the pitch, who, on this evidence at least, looks the most promising of them all. "He was a constant threat all night," acknowledged Critchley, despite his reluctance to single out individuals. "He was a really good outlet for us."

The precocious Elliott oozed confidence and was intelligent in his use of the ball, setting up no fewer than five chances for his team-mates - the most of anyone on the pitch. Most impressively, he really appeared to enjoy the occasion, never showing even the slightest hint of becoming dispirited.

Key performer: Harvey Elliott

Always willing to show for the ball, creative and skilful, Elliott made things happen for his team while still taking care of possession too. He even filled in at right-back briefly when Hoever was injured.

How far away is he from regular first-team football at Liverpool? “Not too far because he trains with our first team on a regular basis,” said Critchley. “He has had first-team exposure already. The manager and the staff obviously think a lot of him.”

That could not have been easy given the circumstances. However much one might attempt to rationalise the view that this was a learning experience for these players, it was natural to wonder whether it could become counter-productive. The sort of pounding that can set back a career rather than propel it.

Critchley was quick to shut down such talk afterwards.

"Try telling those players in that dressing room tonight it was a bad thing for them. If you came into our dressing room at the end, you would know the feeling that those players have had. You can't swap that experience for anything. That was a special evening for them."

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Neil Critchley was proud of Liverpool's performance against Aston Villa

Even so, for a while at least, they did struggle. Van den Berg's error had allowed Kodjia to score and you began to fear for these fledgling footballers. Kane overhit a couple of passes. Longstaff misplaced his lay-off and the head sagged on the shoulders for a second. Van den Berg and Hoever exchanged quizzical looks as Villa found a path between them.

It would have been easy to crumble but they kept at it and while Wesley added a fifth in stoppage time, the second half of the game was a test of character that was passed.

Harvey Elliott in action for Liverpool against Aston Villa
Image: Harvey Elliott produced a starring performance even in defeat

"We went right to the end," said Critchley. "We played like a Liverpool team. That was really important to us. Good, bad or indifferent, we never quit. I don't think you can accuse any of the Liverpool players tonight of putting their heads down and being downhearted when the goals went in. We stuck at it right to the end."

So did the Liverpool supporters.

The verdict was delivered in the minutes that followed the fifth goal. Moments after the initial celebrations from the home supporters had died down, it was the noise generated from the visiting fans that reverberated around Villa Park.

"The support that we had," said Critchley. "It's Christmas. They were well aware of the team that was going to be on that pitch tonight and they came in their thousands, stayed right to the end and clapped those young players off the pitch."

He and others will hope that those are the memories that will stay with these players on the night that, in Critchley's words, they "jumped on the back of the rollercoaster a bit".

Liverpool didn't get the result. They did get the performance.

A good night up top for Villa

The No 9 role has been a bit of a problem for Aston Villa recently. Their first-choice striker Wesley started the season reasonably well with four goals in his first eight appearances, but has failed to score or assist in his last nine Premier League games.

Jonathan Kodjia was given the opportunity to impress against Liverpool's youngsters, and responded to his first start of the campaign with two goals and a lively display. Wesley also emerged from the bench with something of a point to prove and netted late on in their 5-0 win to end his barren spell.

Wesley has started all 17 Premier League games so far. That is in part due to Dean Smith insisting he maintains faith in his summer acquisition, and partly due to the fact he has lacked any credible alternatives in that position.

Perhaps Kodjia breathing down his neck will be the fire Wesley needs to kickstart his Villa career. Either way, for the first time this season Smith has a genuine choice to make up front in their massive Premier League six-pointer against Southampton on Saturday.

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