On Thursday nights under the lights

Leicester City 2 v 2 Napoli

Report by Stuart Dawkins

The general view was that the Europa League draw had placed Leicester in the strongest Group and that Napoli would be their toughest challenge.  On the basis of tonight’s match, the second statement looks to be true – Napoli looked a good side and City were probably fortunate to come away with a point despite losing a two goal lead.

Approaching the match felt a little strange.  Whilst City were in the same tournament last season, the absence of fans meant it far harder to build any emotional connection with the Europa League.  The ubiquity of the Champions League means that its rituals are well-known, those of its junior partner far less so.  Walking to the match we were discussing, for example, “can you remember what the Europa League theme music sounds like?”  (Answer: a sort of low-key spaghetti western background tune).  “Would we recognise the match officials?” (Answer: no … see more below).

Still, it was a proper European night at the King Power Stadium … no …  thanks to UEFA branding rules, make that the ‘Leicester City Stadium’ … with a near full-house and a few hundred fans from Napoli, too.  There were shiny flags to wave when the teams entered the pitch.  There were flame-throwing machines performing for ten-minutes before kick-off.  There was a new European training kit to be worn.

There was also, 10-minutes before kick-off, a UEFA’s cartoon-styled explanatory video about how VAR is used.  Whilst it said nothing new, it was at least an attempt at communication and transparency.  I think the Premier League should do the same.

Last season, City’s squad seemed not to be strong enough to sustain a serious challenge in three competitions.  Rodgers was clearly keen to show the strength of his squad for this year, and gave starts to Soumaré and Daka, together with Iheanacho and Perez.  He also picked Evans and Vestergaard in central defence.  It was a line-up with an attacking feel.

The game started with both teams taking the knee.  The loudness of the clap-banners drowned any of the unfortunate boos which have been heard from a tiny minority of City fans at this season’s games, home and away.

The match was lively from the kick-off.  Schmeichel made a save as early as the third minute, but City were making chances too.  In the sixth minute, half of the stadium (including me) thought Barnes had scored when he steered the ball just wide from close range.  A few minutes later, City did score.  Smart interplay gave Barnes a crossing opportunity, his cross looked long and loopy, but proved to be perfect for Perez to reach at the far post and volley home firmly – a really well-taken goal.

The rest of the first half showed Napoli having a good attacking threat, but some poor finishing.  Osimhen looked a particular handful, very fast and direct.  When the visitors did manage a shot on target, Schmeichel was in good form and there were a couple of times, notably towards the end of the half, when there were last-ditch blocks and goal-line scrambles by City defenders.  City were able to hold possession in midfield but created few real opportunities and the half finished at one-nil.

The referee – Tiago Martins – was clearly trying to follow the new ‘let it flow’ UEFA directive, but somehow this resulted in some curious incidents ‘flowing’ whilst others were penalised – often with yellow cards – which might have been forgiven by another referee.  One of these was a booking for Ndidi in the 20th minute for what was, at worst, a marginally late challenge.  My own observation was that the ref was not showing either team any bias – although in true live football-style the home fans were chanting otherwise – it was more that after watching the Euro 2020 tournament and early Premier League fixtures, it has been a pleasant surprise to see how consistent refereeing has generally been handled.  Tonight’s ref was just rather inconsistent.

Rodgers made two changes at half-time.  Söyüncü came on for Evans – at the time it was unclear whether that was to add a bit more pace to counter Osimhen  who had easily outsprinted all of City’s back-line, but after the match it was clear that this was, in fact, due to an Evans injury.  Tielemans came on to replace Perez.  Perez is the City regular who has yet to win fans over, but in his 45-minutes in this match he was one of the better players.  He challenged well and took his goal with great skill.

Napoli had clearly had a good half-time discussion: they were sharper and faster in the second half, pressing more and winning most things in midfield.  City did not really up their game, and slowly began to lapse more and more into this season’s habit of conceding pressure too easily – be it through passes mis-hit just a little, or clearances from Schmeichel that just missed their mark.  To use the cliché, there are fine margins at this standard of football and too often City’s play in possession was not fine enough. 

Soumaré does, however, look like a class act.  He was calm passing forward or back and had a few tricks, too.  One of these, just before the hour mark, led to some intricate passing into the Napoli box and Daka slamming home a great finish.  The stadium erupted, the teams lined up for the kick-off and … VAR!  Daka had been marginally offside when he received the ball, so no goal.  As in the first half, however, the disappointment lasted only a few minutes before City did score a valid goal.

On two or three occasions, Iheanacho had driven forwards with the ball, but was slow to decide whether to pass or go for goal and wasted the opportunity. This time he was decisive, releasing a pass for Barnes to run on to.  Barnes squared up to his defender, who clearly expected him to cut inside to shoot, instead the Leicester winger cut outside and fired a shot across the goal and inside the far post.  Two-nil to Leicester!  The goal was against the run of play, but none of the home fans cared about that.

Going two behind galvanised Napoli, and City never really got to grips with them.  Within five minutes, Osimhen had flicked the ball over the City defence and finished well to make it two-one.

Rodgers replaced Daka with Lookman.  Daka is clearly very quick – a couple of his sprints after long balls looked even faster than Vardy – and took the disallowed goal chance well, but he did not get too much opportunity to show his skills this evening.

A little later Rodgers replaced Soumaré with Maddison.  On the basis of this seventy minutes, Soumaré is knocking on the door of regular selection and if that means that Maddison needs to up his game to get back to his previous levels, that would be no bad thing. 

The final twenty minutes felt rather too much like a lot of City’s season so far: a goal up and looking like they were going to concede at any moment.  That was the feeling against Wolves and Norwich.  The difference this time was, again, fine margins.  Wolves and Norwich wasted many opportunities with no result, Napoli wasted many opportunities, but found the goal when it mattered.  With three minutes of regular time to go, Osimhen (yes, him again) leaped high in the box to head in a right-wing cross and equalize.

Immediately, Vardy replaced Iheanacho, but there was too little time for the City talisman to have any real effect.  Indeed, a couple of minutes later, Napoli squandered another opportunity with a free header from a free kick.

Well into added time, Ndidi was sent off for a second yellow card.  The two yellows were each on the harsh side, and thankfully it had no impact on the match result.

Both sides came close to creating that one last decisive chance, but it was not to be and the game ended a draw.  City will feel disappointed that they let a two-goal lead slip, Napoli will feel they had more and better chances and should have won.  Objectively, it was a cracking European cup tie!

Not to be dwelt on but to be noted, was the skirmishing between a minority of fans which took places after the final whistle (indeed largely after the teams had left the field) with objects being thrown and twelve arrests made.  Let us hope that is a one-off and not a regular part of the Europa League experience.

My final observation: have Leicester ever won a game at home which began with pyrotechnics pre-kick-off?  I’m happy to be proved wrong, but am struggling to think of one!

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Castagne, Evans, Vestergaard, Bertrand, Pérez, Ndidi, Soumaré, Daka, Iheanacho, Barnes. Subs: Söyüncü, Tielemans, Vardy, Maddison, Albrighton, Ward, Amartey, Choudhury. Ricardo Pereira. Dewsbury-Hal, Thomas, Lookman

Napoli: Ospina, Malcuit, Rrahmani, Koulibaly, Di Lorenzo, Zambo Anguissa, Ruiz, Zielinski, Lozano, Osimhen, Insigne. Subs: Nunes Jesus, Elmas, Idasiak, Politano, Ounas, Petagna, Manolas, Zanoli, Boffelli

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