‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas

Leicester City 2 v 2 Manchester United

Report by Stuart Dawkins

The home game against United is now a regular high point in the annual calendar.  We have had the 5-3 match, the eleventh heaven match and now we can add Vardy’s 50th Premier League goal together with a dramatic finale to match any seasonal tale. 

It’s always interesting to see how different people celebrate Christmas.  In Leicester’s case that celebration took the form of not one, but two free mince pies for home fans and a free blue-and-white Santa hat – traditional gifts with a new twist.  United marked the occasion in other time-honoured ways: by being generous to those who have less than they do (one player less in this case) and by being “childish”. 

TV company scheduling meant for a 7.45pm kick-off on a Saturday.  I don’t remember one of those before and it felt odd going to a match at that time.  It turned out to be competitive and entertaining, providing pretty much everything a football fan could want – entertainment, controversy, a pantomime villain and a twist in the tail.  It is also worth noting how good the United supporters were.  Manchester United supporters may be a butt of many jokes, and Old Trafford does often feel to be half-full of tourists, but their away support is always lively and at times in this match was as loud as any we have heard at the King Power.

The Birch was absent with ‘man flu’ – we wish him a speedy recovery – and Puel had reverted to Fuchs at the back and the speedy attacking line-up featuring Gray, Mahrez, Albrighton and Vardy.  Valencia was out for United, and Mourinho opted for Lingard, Martial and Lukaku up front.

United started as the more dynamic team, winning an early corner and forcing a couple of saves by Schmeichel.  City were showing enough effort for both sets of supporters to be well engaged, with the home faithful’s singing of “Champions of England, more recent than you” getting a laugh and ironic applause even from the visiting fans. 

United had more of the ball to begin with, but both sides looked threatening on the break.  The first goal came more-or-less out of the blue, and was a typical Leicester classic.  A United move was tidied up by the City defence, Ndidi hit a long looping pass of a good 50-yards into space.  Mahrez raced ahead of Smalling, let the ball bounce, controlled it and then stopped still with it on the edge of the box for what seemed like hours – although was probably a second or two. This allowed Vardy to race past him to his left, receive a simple sideways pass before hitting the ball into the net first time.  There have been many Mahrez-assist/Vardy-score goals in recent years, but this one was up with the best.  It was Vardy’s 50th goal in the Premier League, and was met with a montage of all 50 goal celebrations appearing on the big screens.

The match continued to be well balanced.  United spent more time in the Leicester half, particularly down the left wing, but there was little to choose between the teams overall.  Their equaliser owed a little to luck and a lot to the composure of Juan Mata.  Yet another break down the left deflected to Lingard, who made a short pass to Mata in the box.  He then stroked the ball into the far corner beyond Schmeichel’s reach.  It was a great finish and a level score at half-time was a fair reflection of the game so far.

City started the brighter side in the second half and were unlucky not to take the lead in the 63rd minute when some Mahrez wizardry on the right led to a cross which reached Fuchs close to goal, he took his time and powered in a shot, but it was blocked on the line.  It was typical of the match that United then broke immediately, leading to a 15-yard shooting chance for Martial which really should have been converted, but instead was blazed over the bar.

A few minutes later, Maguire was correctly penalised for impeding Martial on the edge of the box.  There was a sense of inevitability when Mata put his shot over the wall and into the net.  It was a good free kick, but not a truly great one – Schmeichel is a good shot-stopper in general, but does seem to be beaten rather too often by free kicks of this sort.

Into the 65th minute, it was Okazaki-time – Shinji coming onto the pitch, unusually, for Iborra.  The Spaniard had tackled and harried well in midfield, but had misplaced a surprising number of passes and looked frustrated with his own performance.  Albrighton adopted a more central role and – as often happens when Okazaki appears – Leicester’s game acquired a bit more speed and bite.  Puel made an enforced change a few minutes later: Simpson limping off to be replaced by Amartey.

Mourinho replaced Martial with Rashford, and a few minutes later one of the game’s standout moments occurred.  Some sloppy City defending led to Lingard being one-on-one with Schmeichel.  He rounded the keeper easily, took his time to pick his spot in the empty net … and hit the post.  It was a miss on a par with the infamous Ronnie Rosenthal mistake of yore, and it would come back to haunt United like the ghost of Christmas Past.

Amartey has performed well this season as part of City’s “second string”.  I would have expected him to slot in well, even against Rashford et al.  Instead he managed to pick up two yellow cards in just over 17 minutes.  Both were correct decisions and to haul back Rashford near the half-way line when already on a yellow card was simply baffling.  The look on Puel’s face said it all.

Albrighton moved to right back and City carried on carrying on.  Mourinho attempted to close the game down, brining on Herrera for Lingard and Mhikataryan for Mata.  Very soon after, Puel reverted to a back three, with Chilwell coming on as a wing-back, replacing Gray.  The remaining quarter hour was played like a combination of two different training drills.  When City had the ball, which they did a surprising amount, they got the ball wide to create crossing chances – Maguire having been moved up as an additional centre forward.  When United had the ball, it was a drill based on having more attackers on the break than there are defenders.  Numerous times they broke three-on-two or even four-on two.  Rashford missed a chance to round Schmeichel to score, Mkhitaryan squandered a chance when he had several options, each of which would have scored … it went on and on.

It then entered pantomime season.  Jon Moss will never be Leicester’s favourite referee (I still have no idea why he sent Schmeichel off at Forest all those years ago, although I have a little more sympathy with him re the Vardy dive).  He got most of the big decisions right today – maybe Maguire deserved a penalty for being climbed on by Smalling, but it was not an egregiously bad decision.  But Mr Moss does seem to enable to make himself the centre of attention by his treatment of silly little pushes and shoves.  United worked this out well – getting numerous soft free kicks in midfield, City didn’t.  He booked Mahrez – correctly – for diving, but was being roundly and continuously booed by the home fans.  As the game drew into its four minutes of stoppage time, it looked as though the story of the match was going to be two pieces of cool finishing by Mata and moans about the ref.  But this game still had one more treat in the toe of its stocking …

The referee played a part in this, too.  Smalling had played on for a few minutes with a clear groin strain.  With just over a minute to go, he chose finally to go to the floor and seek treatment.  When that treatment was finished, Jon Moss left him on the side line – correctly – for just a very few seconds before waving him on.  During these few seconds, City had a cross blocked and fall to Albrighton 30 yards out on the left wing.  By then, Smalling had found his way back to his place in the penalty area, but amazingly no one tracked Maguire as Albrighton’s cross looped beyond the far post, and City’s latest cult hero side-footed the ball coolly into the net to equalize.  There was pandemonium amongst the blue Santa-hatted hordes, and the referee blew for full time immediately after the restart.

City played resolutely with ten men and deserved to get something from the game.  Mourinho was, understandably, furious with the result and his team’s part in it.  Once City were down a man and pressing forwards, United should have gone out of sight – but they didn’t.  A player up, they should never have allowed Maguire to be unmarked at the far post (and not for the first time in the game), but they did.  Using the adjective “childish” to describe his team smacks of interesting man-management, although referring to “joke chances” did fit the seasonal theme well.

It was a cracking match, with lots to talk about on both sides – a Christmas story for years to come.

Merry Christmas, one and all (including Jon Moss and Jose)!

Leicester: Schmeichel, Simpson, Morgan, Maguire, Fuchs, Ndidi, Iborra, Mahrez, Gray, Albrighton, Vardy. Substitutes: Chilwell, King, Hamer, Dragovic, Amartey, Slimani, Okazaki

Man Utd: de Gea, Lindelöf, Smalling, Jones, Young, Pogba, Matic, Mata, Lingard, Martial, R Lukaku. Substitutes: Rojo, Ibrahimovic, Rashford, Romero, Herrera, Mkhitaryan, Shaw

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