LONDON • Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said preparing to face a youthful Aston Villa team in Friday's FA Cup third-round clash presented a challenge he had never faced before, but the German was pleased to emerge with a 4-1 victory at Villa Park.
Villa were forced to field academy players due to a mass Covid-19 outbreak among their ranks, with Under-23 coach Mark Delaney taking charge of the game instead of first-team manager Dean Smith.
In all, 14 unnamed Villa employees - nine players and five staff - have tested positive for the virus.
Sadio Mane scored twice while Georginio Wijnaldum and Mohamed Salah added one each to cancel out a fine goal by Villa's 17-year-old striker Louie Barry.
"The kids of Villa did really well," Klopp said. "It was a tricky one. I've never before had this kind of challenge in my life, that you have no idea who you're playing against. Absolutely no idea.
"You prepare a meeting and then you can throw all the preparation, all the videos in the bin and then you have to start new. That's football and academy players are good players.
"Last year we played here with our kids and they gave Villa a proper game as well. These young kids can all play football and, if you don't play well against them, you have problems."
Sixteen Villa players made their first-team debuts on Friday - four of their starting line-up were not even born when Liverpool's James Milner made his debut for Leeds in 2002 - and Delaney said he was immensely proud of the character they had shown.
"The characteristics of the boys, their togetherness, the camaraderie between the group, they pulled themselves together, they didn't let it faze them," he said.
"You've got to take your hat off to them, they were outstanding."
That Villa, whose team's average age of 18 and 294 days, could end the night with their heads held high was all the more remarkable after their CEO Christian Purslow's pre-match assessment.
16 Aston Villa players made first-team debuts in the FA Cup third-round clash against Liverpool.
"Our experience of this situation in the past two days has been a frightening scenario because we went from 100 per cent negative on 1 January to 14 cases," Purslow told BT Sport. "Many of the players tonight are so young their mums and dads will be dropping them off at Villa Park."
In the evening's other fixture, Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Crystal Palace 1-0 thanks to Adama Traore's 35th-minute thunderbolt.
There are growing concerns over whether the Premier League season can be completed on time as the new virus variant plagues England.
The FA Cup has not escaped the chaos and Southampton's third-round tie against Shrewsbury has been postponed after several positive tests at the League One team.
Derby's first-team squad also missed their tie at Chorley yesterday because of an outbreak.
A record-high 40 positive tests were detected among top-flight players and staff between Dec 28 and Jan 3, and four Premier League games have already been postponed this term.
The English Football League, which oversees the three divisions below the Premier League, reported 112 positive tests on Friday.
Despite the resurgent virus, Premier League officials are adamant the season will proceed.
Liverpool next host Manchester United in a blockbuster clash next Sunday as they return to Premier League action.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS