After a run of indifferent performances, combined with setbacks during January’s transfer window, Leicester City reasserted their authority at the top of the Championship with a resounding 5-0 victory at Stoke to extend their lead to a commanding ELEVEN points.
The result – the biggest win for the Foxes outside Leicester in lower divisions since 1970 – was a timely reminder of the gulf in quality that exists between Enzo Maresca’s side and most of the teams in their current league.
It was all the more sweeter for the exuberant Blue Army that this happened at a venue that has brought despair in the past – most notably in 2008 when a 0-0 draw brought promotion for the hosts and sent City crashing to the third tier for the first time in our history.
The Potters, though, are currently some distance short of the force they were under Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes. They went into this encounter without a home league win in over three months, and never seriously threatened to bring such a wretched run to an end.
There have been numerous instances this season where City have struggled to find a rhythm in the opening 45 minutes. This wasn’t one of them, though.
Perhaps stung by adverse reactions from sections of the fanbase during the midweek display against Swansea, Maresca’s men pressed forward at every opportunity, with Abdul Fatawu – restored to the wing after a three-match ban and Kasey McAteer both featuring heavily in numerous visiting attacks.
The domination of the game brought due reward after 26 minutes, when Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Fatawu set up Patson Daka for the simplest of finishes to open the scoring.
And any fears among the travelling hordes that their side would be content to sit on this lead were soon dispelled by McAteer, whose deflected long-range drive saw him end his four-month scoring drought.
Although the Potters mounted sporadic threats on the City goal, forcing Mads Hermansen into action on occasion, the visitors remained in control in all areas of the pitch, with Wout Faes giving another defensive masterclass and showing the assurance that has seen him become his country’s first-choice centre-back.
Even the loss of Jannik Vestergaard at the interval, with what was subsequently described as a “minor” muscle strain, failed to loosen City’s grip. Maresca’s decision to replace him with academy product Ben Nelson, rather than the more experienced Conor Coady, proved to be vindicated, as the youngster again showed glimpses of the quality that has already led one local media outlet to proclaim him as “the next John Stones”.
Just when the visitors seemed to be coasting through the second half, a marauding run by Faes drew a foul inside the Stoke box, allowing Daka, restored to penalty duties, to net his second goal of the game with the coolest of spot-kicks.
Maresca, who has been notably more proactive in his use of substitutions in recent matches, then moved in for the kill, bringing on James Justin and Jamie Vardy to test the tiring home defence. They soon made the most of their opportunity, with Justin, playing as a right-side midfielder, provided an exquisite cross for Vardy to convert.
The veteran striker – perhaps inspired by the statue of Sir Stanley Matthews outside the stadium – gave several reminders of past glories during the rest of the game, finding the net again with a penalty deep in stoppage time following a foul on Dewsbury-Hall. Whether the City powers-that-be will be compelled to act on the fans’ demand of “Ten more years”, though, remains to be seen.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon in general for all Foxes fortunate enough to be in attendance. However, there were a number of minor blemishes on and off the field that cannot be overlooked.
McAteer’s foolish swipe at home midfielder Burger during a midfield skirmish near the end of the first half brought only a yellow card when a more attentive referee – perhaps assisted by a VAR – might well have issued a more stringent punishment. With physical provocations likely to be a regular feature in forthcoming fixtures, lapses in discipline must be avoided to prevent a repetition of events we saw at Coventry.
In addition, weaknesses remain when defending set pieces, which better attacks than Stoke’s will continue to exploit. Maresca and his coaching team need to spend time at Seagrave to ensure the defence become more resolute when protecting Hermansen in such situations.
Finally, it was disappointing to hear a small but vocal minority of Foxes booing our own players for taking the knee before the kick-off. As recent events at both Hillsborough and the Hawthorns have shown, football even in 2024 continues to be infested by morons who consider racial abuse to be an acceptable means of behaviour.
As someone who remembers the toxic atmosphere of the 1980s, when bigotry forced a number of quality players to leave City, I would never ever wish to see any return to that era. Racism has no place within the game, and we should not rest until it is banished for good!