Doing it on a cold Saturday afternoon in Stoke …

FA Cup Rd 3: Stoke City 0 v 4 Leicester City

Report by Stuart Dawkins

Brendan Rodgers and Stoke manager Michael O’Neil both played, in their youth, for the same junior side in Northern Ireland.  They had something else in common today: both putting out strong sides for this 3rd Round match.  Rodgers, indeed, put out as strong a side as he could, allowing for the fact that both Vardy and Maddison were being given the weekend off to protect injuries.  Praet and, interestingly, Pérez, took their places – the latter benefitting from some good games recently as sub.

Rodgers clearly means to honour Leicester’s unusual FA Cup history – backing up his statement that this competition is one the fans would love to win when he could easily have put out a lesser first eleven had he chosen.

Instead of the familiar drive up the A50, it was an unfamiliar rummage through the entrails of the BBC Sport website to ‘get to’ the match, but once it had started it was largely what might have been expected: Leicester’s superior speed and quickness of thought against a well-organised Stoke full of big guys who would always threaten from set pieces.

The other noteworthy aspect of City’s team was that Justin and Castagne played the whole match on what might be called their ‘wrong’ flanks – Castagne on the right and Justin on the left.  Whatever the reason for that in Rodgers’ mind, it worked brilliantly.

The early skirmishing favoured Stoke, the first shot of the game flying over the Leicester bar in the fourth minute and the first corner of the game causing Leicester problems (as corners seem so often to do this season).

City created a couple of decent chances for Barnes and generally dominated play, but Stoke caused problems from free kicks and corners, and Vokes should have done better than firing over after a couple of Stoke headers found him five yards from goal following a free kick just before the half hour.

Leicester’s wing and full-back combinations were working as well as I have seen them, on both sides of the pitch, and it was particularly noticeable that it was more often Justin and Castagne who got into the final position for crosses rather than Barnes or Albrighton.  All four were playing well.

In the 34th minute, Justin channelled a bit of his inner Maddison, picking the ball up wide on the left, cutting in to the edge of the box before curving in an unstoppable shot inside the far post.  It was every bit as good as Maddison’s against Manchester City.

The goal put even more swagger into the Leicester team.  Throughout the first half they had been the creative side, but now increasingly that creativity began to look more threatening.  A lovely run by Praet in the inside-right position resulted in a chance for Barnes which was well struck and well saved by the ‘keeper at short range.

Despite Leicester’s increasing comfort, Stoke still managed a header on target from a corner, but it was easy for Schmeichel to save.

The final act of the half was another nice bit of work by Pérez, playing a long through-ball, but Barnes’ cross was well cleared by the Stoke defence.

One-nil at half time was the least Leicester deserved, and Stoke must have been hoping that their visitors’ frailty at set-pieces might give them a chance in the game.  That was firmly not going to be the case.

The second half saw Leicester playing at their flowing best, switching the play wide, using all four wide players to create chances, with Praet and, in particular, Tielemans linking things up and finding team-mates in space time after time.

Tielemans released Praet free on the right, but his cross was not as good as it might have been.  Castagne fed Praet on the overlap, he pulled it to Pérez who squared to Ndidi, whose fierce shot was deflected wide (although the referee, incorrectly, gave a goal kick). 

Eventually the pressure paid off.  If the first goal had been Justin channelling Maddison, then the second was the more unlikely sight of Albrighton channelling Vardy.  A perfect long through-ball by Tielemans split the Stoke defence, Albrighton was behind the centre backs on the right of the penalty box, he cut inside to take the defender out of the play and hit an unstoppable shot with his left foot into the far corner.  Jamie, himself, could not have completed the technique any better!

The next few minutes saw Leicester pass and move as well as they have this season in any game.  Stoke are not at all a bad side –they have some very familiar players with plenty of Premier League experience – but Leicester have shown often this season that if an opposing team is not fully organised and fast all the time, then they can and will run riot.

The Stoke manager made three substitutions.  This did serve to stem Leicester’s creativity for a period, although did not result in more creativity for the home side.

After ten further minutes, Leicester’s spark resumed.  Praet brilliantly kept the ball in play on the right wing, breaking forward before cutting the ball back to Castagne who flicked it on to the unmarked Pérez who finished comfortably, the whole move being done at a pace the Stoke defence simply could not match.

Rodgers brought Söyüncü on for Fofana, giving the replacement more useful game time and also protecting Fofana who had been booked.

Almost immediately, Leicester scored again.  Justin crossing from the left, the defender partly clearing to Barnes who hit it hard, first time, past the ‘keeper.  A fourth goal suited the dominance that Leicester had in the match, but was unfortunate for Stoke ‘keeper, Bursik, who had no chance with any of them and made a string of decent saves to other Leicester chances throughout the game.

Iheanacho immediately replaced Barnes.  A couple of minutes later, a cross was deflected to Albrighton in a similar manner to the Barnes goal, but Albrighton’s equally firm shot was well saved by the keeper.

The only bad moment for Leicester came in the 87th minute, Tielemans played yet another near-perfect long pass behind the Stoke defence, which Praet chased.  His effort to get there before the keeper resulted in a clear hamstring pull, which I suspect will keep him out of the team for a while.  He was replaced by Mendy to see the game out.  Praet will be missed, but Leicester this season have repeatedly demonstrated the strength of their squad in over-coming injury setbacks.

This was yet another good performance by a Leicester team, and Leicester manager, who are demonstrating that they are a proper force in English football this season – whatever the competition.  This was just the sort of FA Cup tie that looks ‘tricky’ but Leicester made it look anything but.  Let’s hope that spirit, and that success, can continue on all three fronts: Premier League, Europa League and that elusive FA Cup.

Stoke City
Bursik, Souttar, Shawcross, Batth, Smith, Allen, Obi, Clucas, McClean, Brown, Vokes

Subs
Lindsay, Ince, Oakley-Boothe, Verlinden, Cousins, Thompson, Collins, Nna Noukeu, Matondo

Leicester City
Schmeichel, Castagne, Fofana, Evans, Justin, Albrighton, Tielemans, Ndidi, Praet, Barnes, Pérez

Subs
Söyüncü, Morgan, Ward, Iheanacho, Amartey, Choudhury, Mendy, Fuchs, Thomas

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

New Year crackers on The Tyne

Newcastle United 1 Leicester City 2

St James’ Park – 3rd January 2021

Report by Colin Murrant

With seven changes to the side that drew with Crystal Palace, this looked on paper the best team that Rodgers could put out with only Ricardo and Soyuncu of the injured players yet to return, the latter named amongst the substitutes. Newcastle made two changes from the side that had drawn against Liverpool, with Almiron and Sean Longstaff returning to the team.

It was the second year running that City had visited Newcastle for their New Year opener: oh how City fans would have missed the fourteen flights of steps getting to the away fans seats at the top tier of the Leazes Stand: the cold fresh air in the top tier can blow away any New Year hangovers.

Away End (image taken during Jan 2020 visit)

City kicked off defending the Gallowgate end, in the third minute Maddison was the first to have a shot although the ball bent away from goal and eventually passed well wide of the far post. On 12 minutes Maddison’s through ball split the Geordie’s defence and fed Vardy who rounded Darlow and finished from a tight angle; only to be denied by the linesman’s flag for offside.

In fact, the first half was quite a drab affair with City having the majority of possession but finding it difficult to break through The Magpies well organised defence and to build up attacks with the home team’s high press. City were by no means having things all their own way though and twice Schmeichel had to come out of his area to clear up long balls that threatened to put Wilson in on goal.

There were four minutes of added time as a result of several injuries, the most worrying one for City being a knee injury for Maddison although he was able to continue. Referee Jones had to stop play three times as he managed to get in the way of the ball, he probably had had more touches in the first half than Darlow in the Newcastle goal as City failed to register a shot on target.

The second half started with a chance for Vardy on the left- hand side of goal but the ball seemed to be getting away from him and he could not get enough direction on his shot to go across the keeper and the ball hit the side netting. Yedlin and Ritchie both delivered good balls into the City box but no attackers got near the ball. Newcastle were now getting more of the ball and were showing signs of also getting more men forward.

Then, as so often happens, City took advantage of the extra space in midfield. Fofana broke up an attack on the edge of City area and fed inside to Evans who passed forward to Barnes. Barnes sprinted forward as the Longstaff brothers were left treading water as they showed little intent in catching the City winger. Barnes passed to Vardy in the box, he jinked inside past two players before laying the ball back to Maddison who rifled in a shot from just inside the penalty area on 55 minutes. The City midfielder had obviously been watching the darts, as he celebrated by miming a throw of a dart, like his shot, he hit the bullseye.

Almost immediately Wilson went down in the box screaming following a tackle from Castagne, although the referee waved play on there was a nagging doubt VAR would intervene and award a penalty. Eventually the penalty was not given and replays showed Castagne played the ball and that Wilson was the one who’s foot made contact with the City full back.

City were well in control now and Maddison 25 yards out, let the ball run across him with his back to goal: the midfielder half turned and hit the ball, blind to exact position of the goal, as it sailed just wide of the post.

On 72 minutes City seemed to have put the game to bed. Tielemans won the ball and passed to Maddison who in turn fed the ball wide right to Albrighton. The midfielder ran forward before he squared the ball across the front of the box. Tielemans, still running forward, hit the ball first time from twenty yards and it curled and rocketed past Darlow just inside the keeper’s near post for a truly wonderful goal. City had scored with two cracking strikes to light up a damp and grey St James’ Park.

With ten minutes to go Bruce made a substitution bringing on Andy Carroll; recognising the aerial threat, Rodgers brought on Soyuncu to bolster the defence. Within a minute the substitution had worked for Bruce. A needless foul by Justin led to a free kick to the right of City’s penalty area. Ritchie’s free kick eventually found Carroll who slotted home through a group of players.

The next few minutes were quite intense and you sensed a Newcastle equaliser as pressure mounted. However, little materialised in chances and, as the game entered four minutes of added on time, City were re-stablishing control and a pass from Castagne put in Barnes but his shot was saved well by Darlow.

City made it five wins in a row against The Toon on Tyneside in the Premier League and sit in third place on 32 points, one point behind the joint League Leaders. They stuck diligently to their plan which eventually paid dividends as they started to win the midfield battle. The irrepressible and consistent Albrighton, who seems to have to prove himself to every City manager, was City’s man of the match, with Tielemans a close second.

With the FA Cup to come next week-end, many of the players on show will no doubt get a 13-day break before the next Premier League fixture against Southampton. Now is the time for City to push on, hopefully to be more consistent throughout the season. With a nearly full squad, the knock-out stages of the Europa League to come, some difficult away fixtures played in the first half of the season, there is cause for optimism.  Rodgers said ‘The squad has been tremendous in terms of how they have coped with European and our league efforts. They showed really good capabilities in the game.’

Newcastle United:  Darlow, Yedlin (79), Fernandez, Schar, Clark, Ritchie, Sean Longstaff, Matty Longstaff, Almiron (64), Joelinton (65), Wilson. Subs: Dubravka, Krafth, Manquillo, Dummett, Shelvey (65), Hendrick, Murphy (64), Gayle, Carroll (79)

Leicester City: Schmeichel; Justin, Fofana, Evans, Castagne; Ndidi, Tielemans; Albrighton, Maddison (79), Barnes; Vardy. Subs: Ward, Soyuncu (79), Amartey, Thomas, Mendy, Praet, Under, Perez, Iheanacho.

Referee: Robert Jones

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

Darnell Johnson

Darnell Johnson

In our occasional series, the Foxes Trust links up with fellow fans for clubs where a Leicester City player has gone on loan to get a fan’s view of how they are doing

Today we feature the views of Gary Fairclough on Darnell Johnson’s progress to date in League One at Wigan

“It is entirely likely that Darnell Johnson didn’t quite know what he was letting himself in for when he signed on loan for Wigan.  Indeed at the time his arrival he joined a husk of a club, a squad gutted by the vultures that continue to circle what remains of Wigan Athletic. Around him were the flotsam of North West Football League clubs, the few players from last season that nobody wanted and what remained of our academy players after the Premier League big boys had taken their pick.  The team, if you could call it that, was as unsettled and uncertain as the clubs off-field future.

He replaced another ex-Fox, Cedric Kipre, who had left at the start of September and was expected to provide experienced support for the makeshift defence that had been thrown together. The fact that he only had one senior career appearance to his name speaks volumes as to the situation he was joining.

An impressive debut in the win at home to Doncaster was followed by solid, if unrewarded performances against top half sides before injury at the end of October saw him side-lined until the festive period.  In his absence we had a morale sapping run of 1 win from 8, including cup humiliation against historic local rivals Chorley.   Since his return form has improved, only one defeat and two valuable wins have come from the 5 games played.  That upturn in form may be more to do with the installation of competent management following the departure of the master of incompetence John Sheridan to Swindon, but Johnson has had a part to play too.

Johnson’s performances have been mixed; too often his positioning and aerial defence have been lacking and have allowed the opposition an easy opportunity to score.  His ability on the ball, however, has impressed me – exuding a calmness bringing the ball out from defence that we sorely missed during his lay off.  He is unfortunate that the inherent weaknesses around him have given no hiding places for the shortcomings in his own game.  I have to remind myself that, despite thinking of him as the more experienced player, he still has less than a dozen career appearances to his name.  Only now is he getting a solid partner in defence with whom to build a rapport, performances are improving slowly but there is a long way to go.

With his loan deal due to end in January and our ownership situation still up in the air it remains to be seen whether he will get a chance to develop further here.  To date he has been given a harsh introduction to football in the depths of league one, from the terrible managers to the bullying forwards via comically bad referees – all lessons that will likely serve him well going forward.  Despite that I would not be averse to him staying on for the season if it was possible; he has shown enough promise to suggest he could be a real asset with stronger players around him.”

The views expressed in this report are the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Foxes Trust organisation

Is Project Big Picture mutating?

The shape of European football is undeniably going to change over the next few years. Unlike the consequences of many issues looming on the horizon, that has nothing to do with Brexit but the desire from UEFA and the European Clubs Association (ECA) to increase the potential revenue from broadcasters and sponsors.

Many will recall the outcry during the summer concerning Project Big Picture and what was perceived as a power grab by the ‘Big Six’ clubs in the Premier League. At the time, some of us saw this a pre-emptive attempt to reform the structure of the English game, in order to allow greater accessibility for the top clubs to European competitions – although dressed up as a way to hand out some of the abundant wealth to the lower reaches of the football pyramid.

UEFA has awoken from its Covid slumber to rekindle the process of reform. The negotiations over the 2021-24 broadcasting rights have to be decided post-haste and changes to the structure of competitions post-24 are gathering momentum.

In early December, many media channels published articles on the latest proposals for the reform of the Champion’s League, with the ‘Swiss System’ being the latest favourite in what is seen as an attempt to quash any further notions of a Euro Super League. This would see the group stages comprising four groups of nine teams, with each club playing 10 matches (five home and away) but not playing all of the teams in the same group, as matches would be decided by a draw with some form of ceding.

Not unsurprisingly, there has been no sign of the inclusion of supporters in any of the renewed dialogue with stakeholders – this despite assurances from UEFA President, Aleksander Čeferin that there would be.

Full details are yet to emerge, as are the means of qualification. It is understood most of Europe’s top clubs are still in favour of this being on merit – despite calls to the contrary from certain proponents of the Super League. To appease this faction, at least two places could be held open to those teams that have the highest UEFA coefficient points score.

At the time of writing, Bayern Munich on 127 points and Barcelona on 121 are the top two, with Juventus and Real Madrid close behind. The remainder of the top ten are easy to guess, with Manchester City being the highest placed English club on 110 points. Just for comparison, Leicester lie in 49th place with 31 points – a long way to go before we are heralded with a free pass to European football.

However, no matter how the Euro competitions are reorganised, there remains the issue of how the riches yielded are distributed. In the weeks running up to Christmas, German supporter groups were calling for UEFA to ensure the competitiveness of leagues by increasing the solidarity payments derived from broadcast revenues. 

The Football Supporters Association (FSA) lobbied Football Supporters Europe (FSE) with concerns and it agreed to issue an immediate statement that centres on reminding all concerned (not least the clubs and the European Leagues as well as UEFA) of the six principles that both FSA and FSE agreed last year, whilst making a public call for the promise to engage with supporters to be honoured as a matter of urgency. The statement includes three commissioned quotes from supporter groups representing different countries on the importance of fans that Covid has demonstrated, the call for engagement and the importance of revenue sharing:

https://www.fanseurope.org/en/news/news-3/2286-fse-calls-for-fan-involvement-in-club-competition-reform-fairer-revenue-distribution.html

The early months of 2021 will no doubt see plans for the Europa League begin to emerge. The last round of proposals was for a 64-club competition divided into two leagues.

UEFA decisions are decided on a one member, one vote system (the FA carry English football’s vote). As important as the statement is, FSE has also agreed to consider how fans actually make our case to UEFA (UEFA will only negotiate with the FSE and not country-based supporter groups) and the other interested parties when asked to. That means putting some flesh onto the six principles and expectations of dialogue that enable supporters to input into that plan and its delivery.

SAME OLD SAME

Crystal Palace 1 v Leicester City 1

28 December 2020, Selhurst Park 3 p.m. KO

Report by Steve Moulds

A familiar tale of City failing to beat sides in the bottom half of the table after great results against top six teams – there was the sense of having seen all this before already this season and perhaps proof that Leicester’s bench players are not as good as they need to be.

This time 12 months ago, having just lost 0-4 to Liverpool at home, City were sitting second in the league with 39 points, having played 19 games. This season is looking very similar and a more profitable Christmas week provided hope for a good result as the Blues went to Palace.

The Eagles had not had such a good Yuletide, having conceded 10 goals in two games, losing 7-0 to Liverpool and 3-0 to a Villa side with only 10 men on the field for half of the game. Expectation dictated Palace would come out more determined to get a result at home.

Rodgers made seven changes from the side that drew 2-2 with Manchester United on Boxing Day, indicating a need to rest some key players. Lining up in 4-2-3-1 formation and electing to start with Amartey, Thomas, Choudhury, Praet, Mendy, Pérez and Iheanacho, the side appeared lacking in creativity with a more defensive outlook, probably to counter Palaces expected attacking front three. The encouraging news saw Söyüncü return to the bench.

Leicester had won six out of seven away matches, finding a winning formula for away games. In the event, Palace lined up in a more conventional 4-4-2, perhaps wary of City’s ability to break quickly and not wishing to concede an early goal. Leicester made a confident start, with an Iheanacho swift turn and break leading to a corner in the first few minutes. City were playing confidently and looking comfortable on the ball, but with no real product in the final third to show for their early possession. Palace were certainly determined to get plenty of men behind the ball.

With the midfield congested, City were making more progress out wide with Perez and Justin on the right and Barnes and Thomas on the left. Eventually, this lead to a Barnes ricocheted pass running into the path of Thomas sprinting into the box and a poor challenge by Tomkins lead to a penalty. Up stepped Iheanacho only for Guaita to save what was a weak attempt. Chance missed and one City would eventually regret.

Palace were offering little up front until the 21st minute when a short back pass by Choudhury allowed Zaha to pounce – fortunately, Choudhury got back to rob Zaha in the box and force a corner.  Increasingly, Palace were finding it hard to retain possession due to City’s high press and effective defending. Leicester were often able to win the ball back in the Palace half and move the ball across the pitch swiftly. In one instance, Justin played in Pérez whose deflected cross provided an excellent chance for Praet who should have done better. City needed to do more of this if they were to create chances.

The best chance for Palace came on 27 minutes, Schlupp made good progress down the left and crossed to an unmarked Townsend who prodded wide at the near post from the six yard line.

Goalless at the break, Leicester had around 70 per cent of the possession in the first half and should have been ahead, given the opportunities they had, despite the penalty miss – no product in the final third is something premier league teams often come to regret. Palace were probably the happier given their recent form.

There were no changes at halftime for either side. Palace came out on the front foot in the early minutes, leading to a half chance for Zaha who blasted over the bar from outside the box. Palace looked a yard sharper, hassling City’s midfield and pressing higher on the defence, resulting in a couple of late challenges and booking for Choudhury.

This sparked Rodgers into making the first change with Tielemans replacing Choudhury. However, this did not stem Palace’s adventure – a Townsend deep cross and Zaha demonstrated how a quality striker finishes in this league – one-nil to the Eagles, with Schmeichel beaten at his near post despite not yet having to make a save in the game.

Hodgson appeared to have got his tactical changes right, snuffing out the wide threat City had posed in the first half.  Palace were now looking in control, keeping the ball and stringing passes together. It was time for Rodgers to up the anti and bring on Vardy for Praet.

On 71 minutes Gray made his first appearance of the season, his first cross was wayward and looking rusty – a cynic might say this was simply putting him in the shop window for the January transfer period. Leicester were seeing more of the ball but Palace were easily managing the game, with no need to stretch themselves looking for a second.

Then out of nothing, Barnes showed the same brilliance he had against United on Boxing Day and crashing a low shot past Guaita’s left. Having got back in the game, City began to take control once more, with Barnes creating another chance. Palace did not give up and also looked to create chances.

Leicester’s best final chance came from a free kick just outside the D, after Pérez drew a foul. However, up stepped Gray to place the ball in row X! Where was Maddison when we needed him? City continued to press into time added on and Pérez had a half chance in the closing minutes.

Last season, City did the double over Palace and this should be viewed as two points lost. Barnes was awarded man of the match – Rodgers will be thankful he rescued a point as he was the only bit of quality on show in a Leicester shirt. It may be a harsh final assessment, but Christmas came late for Palace as Leicester gifted them a point.

LEICESTER: Schmeichel, Amartey, Evans, Thomas, Justin, Choudhury (Tielemans 56 min), Praet (Vardy 65 min), Mendy, Barnes, Iheanacho (Gray 71 mins).

CRYSTAL PALACE:  Guaita, Clyne, Kouyaté, Tomkins, Mitchell, Townsend, Milivojevic, Riedewald (McArthur 73 mins), Schlupp (Ayew 83), Benteke, Zaha.

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