AEK Athens 1 v 2 LCFC
Report by Stuart Dawkins
In any normal year I would almost certainly be writing this match report in Athens, but this is no ordinary year and I am not. My only other visit to Greece led me to miss the 2001 City win against Liverpool, which took them (if I remember correctly) to fourth in the Premier League with a push-over FA Cup Quarter Final tie against Wycombe Wanderers to look forward to. Great things were clearly about to happen for City back then! That particular story ended, as we all know, in footballing tragedy – or maybe farce, but those great things did eventually happen – just rather more years later than we thought at the time.
City’s team sheet for the match looked experimental. Brendan Rogers’ pre-match interview made clear that was not the case, it simply deployed pretty much all the fit defensive resources he had available. City’s list of injured players now includes Pereira, Söyüncü, Evans, Castagne and Ndidi – five players who if fit would probably make the best defensive line-up of any team in the Premier League. Rogers adopted to keep a back five by bringing in ‘big Wes’ Morgan to partner ‘little Wes’ Fofana and Fuchs, with Albrighton on the right and Justin on the left. Choudhury also got a start. On the flipside of the defensive troubles, the match also saw Maddison and Vardy start together for the first time this season, and a first start, too, for wild card, Ünder.
The Olympic stadium in Athens looked huge (OK, it’s an Olympic stadium … in Greece, so it’s going to be huge I guess) and somehow the plain white of the empty seats made it look bigger still – a poignant visual reminder of this pandemic-struck year. The pitch, on the other hand, owed rather more to classical Greek technique than 21st-Century science, looking bumpy and uneven.
The television coverage made suitable reference to this match being around the date of the second anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Khun Vichai and others.
City started the game with a lively couple of minutes which came to nothing. AEK then grew in confidence and for ten minutes were the better side, although they only managed one long-range shot over the bar.
As so often this season, City really only got going after 15 minutes had passed. First a neat lay-off by Vardy gave Maddison space for a 20-yard shot which slid only just wide. Then, Maddison repaid the compliment by playing the classic Leicester City through-ball for Vardy to chase, flick past the keeper and wait for the keeper to bring him down for a penalty – all of which duly happened.
The keeper got both hands to Vardy’s penalty kick, but it was struck with such venom that it easily found the back of the net to give City the lead.
City now looked comfortable. Maddison was being the influence we all know he can be, setting up a chance for Vardy to release Ünder whose shot was well smothered by the keeper. Even during this period, AEK did create chances. Schmeichel was forced to make a decent save from a close-range header and a couple of minutes later, a loose pass from Morgan led to a close range shot from Livaja, who really should have scored but skewed the shot wide of the post.
With five minutes to go before half-time, City calmed the nerves by scoring a second goal. A right wing corner by Maddison fell to Choudhury, unmarked about 10 yards out beyond the far post, he hit his shot crisply to make it two-nil, a score-line City deserved based on the balance and quality of their play.
City almost created a third goal before half time, with Vardy and Ünder linking well to create a shooting opportunity for Maddison, but the defence smothered the chance.
At half-time, Rogers replaced Fuchs with Luke Thomas – hopefully a pre-planned move rather than the harbinger of yet another defensive injury; Justin moved into the back three.
The AEK manager made two attacking changes at half-time, and that seemed to make a real difference. Within five minutes, the Greek team had pulled a goal back and a minute later they really should have equalized.
The goal came from a simple long ball that found Tankovic behind the Leicester defence: it looked as though Morgan and Justin had not yet quite worked out their post-half-time positioning. A minute later, Tankovic ended a neat passing move by shooting over the bar when he should have scored.
Most of the rest of the second half was scrappy by both sides. AEK had a decent amount of possession, but City soaked it up easily. City put together one or two decent attacking moves, but nothing that created a real threat other than a nice shot from the edge of the box by Under that hit the bar.
Indeed, my live notes of the match for the second half contain more mentions of substitutions than they do of action. The rule allowing five subs in Europa League games makes some sense, but it led to a very fragmented match. Rogers deployed his subs in what seemed like a pre-planned way, to ensure as much fitness as possible for the upcoming match against Leeds United and to avoid any further injury scares. After 65 minutes, Choudhury and Under were replaced by Mendy and Praet. Five minutes later, Vardy was replaced by Iheanacho. Five minutes after that, Maddison was replaced by Barnes.
AEK also made three further substitutions as the half progressed. Whilst the Greek team had plenty of possession and were only a goal down, they never pressed effectively enough to make City look nervous. As full-time drew near, AEK became less and less effective – the whole thing had somewhat of the feel of a Friendly International when both sides had made so many changes that neither was really playing in a smooth formation. The difference, of course, is that this was not a friendly, but an important competitive match in City’s season – and to their credit they did what they had to do – win the match – fairly comfortably.
There were a number of positives for City, not just the result. Maddison, Vardy and Ünder linked together well. Morgan was strong at the back, particularly in the air. Fofana, too, was solid and creative – it is almost unbelievable that he is only 19 he looks so assured. Albrighton continues to demonstrate what an asset he is to the Club – in the first half he seemed to be everywhere on the right-hand flank, chasing everything.
The Europa League is an exciting challenge for Leicester, and one in which they should do well. The downside is the relentless period of two matches per week. Given all that, the team and the manager can be very pleased with the 100% record after two games.
AEK Athens: Tsintotas, Insúa, Nedelcearu, Svarnas, Bakakis, Krstičić, Shakhov, Hélder Lopes, Mandalos, Livaja, Ansarifard. Subs: Athanasiadis, Botos, Nélson Oliveira, Christopoulos, Hnid, Laci, Macheras, Mitaj, Tankovic, Theocharis, Vasilantonopoulos, Šabanadžović
Leicester City: Schmeichel, Fuchs, Morgan, Fofana, Justin, Choudhury Tielemans, Albrighton, Maddison, Ünder, Vardy. Subs: Barnes, Iheanacho, Jakupovic, Mendy, Praet, Pérez, L Thomas, Ward
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