FA Cup: Liverpool must prioritise Premier League title race over Aston Villa retribution

When Caoimhin Kelleher left Villa Park 13 months ago after suffering a 5-0 defeat in the Carabao Cup, the Irishman could not have imagined that another Liverpool goalkeeper would concede even more goals in a crushing defeat by Aston Villa before a year had passed. Or that a global pandemic would disrupt football so badly that the Midlands side would be forced to play a team comprised of under-23 players in tonight’s FA Cup third-round fixture.

In December 2019 Liverpool were forced to put out a side with an average age of 19 years, six months and three days, because the first-team squad were in Qatar winning the Club World Championship. Villa’s youthful look tonight is caused by a much more sinister situation: Covid-19 sweeping through their Bodymoor Heath training ground.  

Kelleher was elevated to the role of Alisson Becker’s deputy in part because of Adrian’s performance in the 7-2 rout in October. The 22-year-old will relish the chance to exact an element of revenge at the scene of the biggest defeat of his fledgling first-team career.

READ MORE: Villa report ‘significant’ Covid outbreak on eve of Liverpool tie

Jurgen Klopp does not like getting beat – especially conceding 12 goals in two away games at the same club – but the Liverpool manager is looking beyond Villa. The FA Cup matters little to the 53-year-old, especially in a season concertinaed by coronavirus. Payback can wait. Nursing his injury-ravaged squad through a title race is much more important to the German. Manchester United are up next at Anfield in the Premier League and addressing the stuttering form of the festive period is of primary importance.

The biggest problem Klopp faces is at centre-half. Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips will get a chance to garner some more experience with Fabinho rested for Villa, but neither will solve the immediate issue. Liverpool’s defence of the Premier League hinges on the centre-backs. It will be a close call whether Joel Matip is ready to return in nine days’ time for United. Even then, the 29-year-old is brittle.

Using Jordan Henderson in the back four is not the solution. In the 1-0 defeat by Southampton the captain filled in manfully, but he was badly missed in midfield. The experiment was a failure.

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The club are wary about buying a central defender this month in a market skewed by the pandemic. A loan move seems an obvious answer but Liverpool had their fingers burnt by Steven Caulker five years ago. Caulker had serious personal problems and made just four appearances before the deal was cut short and he entered rehab. However, if there was a centre-half available with the right profile and price – either on loan or to buy – Liverpool would act.

Monday’s defeat at St Mary’s showed that the entire shape of the team pivots around the centre of defence. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who will both be rested tonight, cannot get forward with the same confidence in a patched-together backline. Thiago Alcantara, on whose shoulders so much hope lies, found the Southampton press difficult to deal with. For all his undoubted class and experience, the 29-year-old who won the Champions League with Bayern Munich last year needs to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. That will be an easier task if Henderson is back in his usual position doing the legwork with Georginio Wijnaldum. Thiago is likely to feature tonight. He needs games, even if this cup tie against a weakened Villa is superficially below his status.

Klopp’s system is not built around a single individual. It is organic and relies on the components to function in harmony. The breakdown of a key position affects the whole. Uncertainty at centre-half ultimately leads to interrupted supply lines to the front three. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino need the right sort of service to thrive – and that requires runners creating space as well as providing passes and crosses.

Managers repeat the mantra that only the next match matters: Take things one game at a time. This is not the situation tonight. Villa and the cup are an inconvenience. There is a score to settle with Dean Smith’s team, but retribution can wait.

There will be other chances to sweep away the spectre of Villa Park and the dirty dozen goals of the past two visits. Crushing Villa’s youngsters will not act as a salve. A clean sheet for Kelleher would be nice, but there are much more important challenges on the horizon for Klopp and Liverpool.

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