“Fresh legs” on Filbert’s Birthday

City 2 v Liverpool 0 – Carabao Cup 4th Round

Report by Stuart Dawkins

The rotation of players for cup competitions has become, for good or ill, a commonplace in the Premier League era.  Jurgen Klopp, with his excellent command of the English language, stated in advance of this match that this his plan was not to play a weakened team, but to allow ‘fresh legs’ an opportunity to play.  In the end, the ‘legs’ which counted in this match were those of two players – Philippe Coutinho and Shinji Okazaki.

Congratulations should go to the commercial team at Leicester: a full King Power stadium for a League Cup match shown live on TV suggesting that they got ticket pricing just right.  There were a fair few Liverpool fans in ‘home’ seats, but the match was played in a good spirit on and off the pitch and the Liverpool faithful in the Away end kept up their support for the Reds even as the match turned against them.

The clap banners were dedicated to Filbert Fox – 19 September 2017 being, to the very day, the mascot’s 25th birthday – and included his career stats to date.

Liverpool lined up with Coutinho playing and a debut for Oxlade-Chamberlain.  If nothing else, that made their team looked stronger on paper than City’s, which included debuts for Iborra and Dragovic.  Hamer continued to be preferred over Jakupovic and the unlikely pairing of Ulloa and Slimani started up front.

For the second match in a row, City were poor, bordering on very poor, in the first half.   Other than lumping the ball up to the big men, who generally did not connect with it, there seemed to be no plan.  The midfield gave the ball away too frequently and Coutinho looked several classes above anyone else on the pitch.  His threat led to full-back Robertson getting numerous chances to make dangerous crosses, and it was only luck and a lack of finishing sharpness that stopped City being two or three goals down by half time. 

Gray made a few attempts to be creative, Albrighton worked tirelessly, but almost always defensively as Coutinho ran rings around the home team.  The relationship between goal-keeper and defenders looked hesitant, and the City midfielders found it hard to find a blue shirt, as Liverpool looked quicker and more purposeful.

Yet, somehow, half time was reached with the match goal-less.

For the second half, Klopp decided to replace Coutinho with Woodford – presumably to keep the former’s legs ‘fresh’ for the weekend.  As a result, Liverpool were less fluid in the second half, lacking the creativity and threat they had in the first.  The match was more balanced, and then Ulloa got a strange injury.  He made a routine-looking defensive header.  The ball must have connected with his head awkwardly, as he immediately collapsed in a dazed heap and was replaced by the ever-fresh legs of Shinji Okazaki.  Ulloa is generally a tireless worker for the City cause, but I’m sure even he would admit that this was not one of his better matches, achieving little of note.

Within seconds of his arrival, Okazaki’s speed and determination began to pay dividends.  His first touch of the ball was a quick tackle which sparked a City attack.  Suddenly, it was City who looked the better team.  Liverpool were making niggly fouls to break-up City’s counter-attacks.  Referee Stuart Atwell seemed reluctant to show yellow cards to either team and so midfielders on both teams resorted to pulls and trips to break up play.  By the time he finally showed a card – to Liverpool’s Grujic – it was for that player’s fourth or fifth foul, three of which would probably have been bookings most days. 

City’s first goal had a bit of good fortune, and a lot of sloppy defending.  A Leicester corner in the 65th minute was easily cleared, Chilwell simply chipped the ball back in the air and Leicester players were queuing up unmarked to head it: Morgan headed across, Iborra headed it down, Okazaki controlled it and poked a weak-ish shot which deflected off a defender beyond ‘keeper Ward’s right hand.

Klopp responded by replacing Wijnaldum with Ings.  It made little difference.  City were now playing the better football, and the Liverpool players seemed to become visibly dis-heartened.  Klaven was booked for an accidental, but nonetheless rash elbow on Okazaki.  City were doing everything more quickly, and attacking with pace. 

That approach reaped further rewards in the 77th minute.  Okazaki and Slimani exchanged passes, then the Algerian striker put his head down, brushed aside the Liverpool defence and hit a near-perfect drive from the edge of the box into the far-left corner.  It was a very good goal.  Prior to the goal, Slimani had – as ever – run and chased hard, but largely ineffectively.  This was, however, a striker’s goal of the best quality.  I do hope that scoring it will increase his confidence, as his finishing has often been suspect in previous games.

The game was now over as a contest.  Liverpool attempted to keep going, but their passing became more ragged and even the irrepressible Klopp simply sat down on the bench, presumably trying to work out how such a dominant first half for his team could turn into such a comfortable victory for Leicester.

Shakespeare took the opportunity to give Choudbury his first-team debut, replacing Ndidi in the 82nd minute.  Iborra was, correctly, booked for dragging back a Liverpool mid-fielder, Gray forced a good save from Ward and came within inches of providing a perfect cross for Slimani to score another.  It was all straight-forward for City.

The positives from the game must include, of course, the result itself.  Dragovic looked solid.  Iborra looked like a captain – gesturing to his team-mates and organising.  His first half performance was patchy, but by the second he had become a strong presence in midfield (and he is a strong presence physically, dwarfing even the City centre backs).  Gray played well.  He would have been disappointed at the quality of a couple of his shots, but he created a threat all game.  Okazaki was outstanding.  For the second match running, bringing him on as a substitute transformed Leicester and it was right that he became that rare thing: a Sky TV Man of the Match who had been on the field for only just over half an hour.

Even allowing for the fact that this was not City’s strongest team, the main negative is that, for the second match in a row, there did not seem to be an effective game plan for the first half.  The team’s resilience and spirit can be applauded for recovering in each match, but if City are to achieve anything meaningful this season, they must begin to play as well as they can for the whole 90 minutes, not just for some of them.

Leicester: Hamer, Amartey, Morgan, Dragovic, Chilwell, Albrighton, Ndidi, Iborra, Gray, Ulloa, Slimani. Subs:  Iheanacho, Musa, Jakupovic, Okazaki, Mahrez, Benalouane, Choudhury

Liverpool: Ward, Flanagan, Gomez, Klavan, Robertson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Grujic, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Solanke, Coutinho. Subs Karius, Milner, Moreno, Ings, Markovic, Woodburn, Alexander-Arnold

The views expressed in this report are the opinions of the Trust member nominated to file the report only and do not represent the views of the Foxes Trust organisation