It says a lot about the popularity of Leicester City at present that more than 30,000 paid to see a Third Round FA Cup tie against Championship opposition. There seemed to be lots more family groups in the crowd than usual – the Cup giving an opportunity for people who may not always be able to get tickets for high-flying City to see their heroes.
It also says a lot about Leicester City that today those
‘heroes’ were largely City’s second team.
Through some inspired squad rotation by Brendan Rodgers, we now know
that even that ‘second team’ are a more-than-decent Premier League side.
Wigan turned up to play football but found that the Premier
League has players who are faster, stronger and quicker of thought than they
could handle … oh, and it has VAR too, but more of that later.
Rodgers made nine changes, keeping only Barnes and Chilwell from the usual starting side. This gave the opportunity for a first-team debut for Benkovic, who got a positive welcome from the home crowd. City played in a 4-3-3 formation and – to many people’s surprise – it was Barnes, rather than Gray, who played in the central role. Also interesting was that Choudhury mostly played further forward than Mendy, rather than taking the holding role.
For once, the unusual kick-off time – 5:31pm – could not be blamed on TV companies. A Tigers home game earlier in the afternoon meant for a later start, and all matches in this round of the Cup were prefaced by a one-minute video from the Heads Up, Every Mind Matters campaign in support of mental health.
City looked fairly comfortable right from the start. It is arguable that Leicester’s squad depth is
one of the best in the Premier League.
The players play in the same style as the regular first team, and each
seems to be well briefed on their role.
City’s wide players, particularly Albrighton, got a lot of the
ball. The midfield was stronger in the
tackle and faster to almost everything loose in the middle of the pitch, and
the defensive line looked comfortable playing the ball out of defence.
Despite City looking comfortable, Wigan nearly scored the
first goal – their attack being flagged for offside (probably correctly) before
being shot wide. Indeed, Wigan were
caught offside a lot in the game … but more of that later, too.
The attack sparked the decent away support into more vociferous chants, including the priceless “FA Cup Champions, you’ll never sing that”. A couple of minutes later, however, it began to be clear that Wigan themselves would not be “FA Cup Champions” this year. Barnes played a neat pass to release Albrighton, who could not out-pace the defence, but did cut back to put in a low cross from the left, Wigan’s Pearce could not untangle his feet to deal with the cross, and somehow it bounced off his ankles and past his own ‘keeper into the net from 10 yards. It was a lucky break for City, but one their dominance of play probably warranted.
A minute later, Barnes and Choudhury linked up on the edge
of the Wigan penalty area, and it took a good save to prevent it from being
A couple of minutes later, Morgan pulled up with what appeared to be a muscle injury, his match lasting just 23 minutes before being replaced by Soyuncu.
City continued to dictate the play and create reasonable chances, then with five minutes to go to half-time, Wigan played a neat bit of attacking football to create a crossing opportunity from the right. Ward, in goal, did brilliantly to get the tip of a finger to divert the low cross, or it would have been a tap-in equalizer for Wigan. Instead, City re-grouped and within less than a minute were two-nil up. Barnes was released behind the Wigan defence, cut back to shoot and – despite a significant deflection off the defender’s leg – managed to find the far corner of the goal.
The second half was mostly routine for Leicester. Not quite the stroll they had against
Newcastle’s ten-men in their last match, but certainly not the intensity and
pace which they would expect to face in a league match.
The main worry for City was that, in the 65th minute, they lost a second centre-back to injury – Benkovic being replaced by Fuchs. Let’s hope the injury is not too serious, or City’s resources in that part of the team will begin to look very sparse – never mind the impact on Benkovic himself.
The match was petering out into a comfortable home victory
when, in the 71st minute, Wigan put together a good set of passes in
midfield, the ball reached the left wing, was crossed and volleyed into the
net. It was a very good goal, although
very much against the run of play.
… then the referee put his hand to his ear and Wigan’s fans
were treated to a VAR experience – the goal being ruled out as the winger was
marginally offside when the ball was passed to him. The picture shown on the big screens made it
clear it was the correct decision, although it was the kind of ‘goal’ that
would almost certainly have stood pre-VAR, as the attacker and the last
defender were separated by almost the entire width of the pitch, and I doubt a
human eye would be able to spot the inches involved to make that decision.
With fifteen minutes to go, Ndidi replaced Mendy. Mendy had played very well, showing a good range of passes – it is a real credit to him how well he has played given the recent couple of chances after so long in the wilderness. Ndidi began by making a barn-storming run through the Wigan defence before tumbling in the box under a challenge. It did not look like a penalty, but the match was held up for a short time for VAR to confirm that, indeed, no foul had been committed.
Gray had a trademark shot (albeit from his left foot for a change) well saved by Marshall. Barnes – who had played the striker role well – made a 70-yard run before having his near-post shot saved by Marshall, and that was about that.
It was a good, professional performance by City. The fans enjoyed themselves and the experimental ‘singing and banners area’ behind the goal for Union FS looked and sounded great. Wigan, too, played well – they were just not quite good enough to compete with this current, very impressive Leicester City team – whichever eleven players are chosen to play.
As my friend, rather ambitiously, texted me afterwards – the
domestic treble is still on which is more than can be said for Liverpool!
On Boxing Day, many Leicester City fans left the King Power Stadium chastened and despondent after a dispiriting defeat by Liverpool. There were genuine fears that the side were about to suffer another mid-season slump which would undo and reverse the significant progress it has made during the last four months.
Fortunately, though, such
anxieties have largely been dispelled, following two away victories which have
not only enabled the Foxes to maintain a grip on second spot, but also to
extend the lead on 5th-placed Manchester United to an astonishing FOURTEEN
The latest victory, at St
James’ Park, was achieved in some comfort against hosts who themselves were
struggling to find form, confidence, and – as events transpired – fitness too.
When certain managers complain to the media about players suffering injuries as a result of honest opposition challenges, perhaps they should give the same amount of scrutiny to their own training schedules.
Meanwhile Brendan Rodgers
was able to recall several players rested for the win at West Ham, except for
Jamie Vardy. who it later emerged was suffering with a slight calf strain. The
City boss sprang a surprise with the retention of Christian Fuchs in a 3-5-2
formation, perhaps as a means of dealing with whatever aerial threat the home
side may have presented.
In front of what was officially a capacity crowd – although empty rows, and even blocks, were evident in several parts of the ground throughout the game – City started strongly, with Jonny Evans forcing home keeper Dubravka into action early on.
Although the visitors
generally held the upper hand during the first half, with James Maddison
playing a prominent role, the reshaped defence had to be alert to repel
sporadic home attacks, with Kasper Schmeichel thwarting both Schär and Joelinton.
After Wilfred Ndidi had squandered a glorious chance to put City ahead, heading a Maddison cross over from close range, the visitors finally made the breakthrough nine minutes before the break. Ayoze Pérez, returning to his former haunt, seized upon a wayward pass from Lejeune to fire past Dubravka.
As the home defence was
left reeling, City struck again three minutes later, when Ricardo intercepted
another stray ball from Lejeune and enabled Pérez to tee up Maddison for a
20-yard drive which gave the home keeper no chance.
Newcastle suffered further blows during the remaining minutes of the half, with both wing-backs being forced off injured. City almost exploited this disarray further, but Dubravka somehow denied Kelechi Iheanacho from point-blank range.
Any hope the beleagured hosts may have had of regaining a foothold in the game was effectively ended soon after the interval when, with Shelvey also having been subbed, Schär limped off, thus reducing them to 10 men.
It was clear that damage limitation was now the home side’s only hope, and they defended in depth in an effort to avoid a Southampton-style hiding, although Dubravka produced a fine double save on the hour to stop Iheanacho and Pérez from extending City’s lead.
With the game safely in the bag, and a busy January schedule looming, City were content not to unduly exert themselves for the remainder of the game, although sub Hamza Choudhury finished off a fine move with a precise 20-yard strike three minutes from time to give the scoreline extra gloss.
Any damage to morale caused by the two recent defeats appears to have been well and truly banished. The only concerns from this game were Ben Chilwell’s distribution, which again failed to reach the standard he often produces in an England shirt, and the continuing indifferent form of Youri Tielemans.
In overall terms, though, this team appears well set to make 2020 another special year in the history of the club.
In the Leicester Mercury City highways director Martin Fletcher is quoted: “With the Tigers and Leicester City both playing at home, and with the January sales in full swing, we’re expecting high volumes of traffic on the road network and high demand for parking spaces.
“My advice would be to plan ahead and
allow extra time to get to your destination – whether that’s Welford Road, the
King Power stadium or the city centre shops.”
While the Park and Ride services from Birstall, Enderby and Meynells Gorse are available for Tigers fans, they run between 7am and 7pm on Saturday, therefore are not an option for City fans, therefore the Foxes Trust recently launched Lift Share scheme could be a solution.
So could you give a fellow City fan a
lift or would you like a lift to the game ?
Talk to each other via liftshare. All you need to do is:
City fans were taken by surprise at the number of changes for this match. Only Schmeichel and Evans were included, from
the team who were humbled by Liverpool on Boxing Day.
the biggest surprise was the inclusion of the forgotten man, Papy Mendy;
Rodgers said after the match that he had played for the under 23s and in some
closed games to improve his match fitness.
I do feel sorry for him, as he has not really had a chance after he was
injured so early in his City career, against Arsenal. He did his chances of finding a new club, if
that is what he wants, no harm by this display.
Before the game, there was a tribute to Martin Peters, a West Ham legend, whose death was announced a few days ago; many Leicester fans joined in the minute’s applause.
The game started very tamely, with very little structure but a lot of ‘kick and rush’. The first piece of skill saw Gray put the ball over the top for Iheanacho to run onto, which he did, but was clattered by the onrushing West Ham goalkeeper, Fabianski, and needed a lot of treatment before the game could continue. Fabianski was booked and Gray took the resulting penalty – no need for VAR to confirm the decision!
he had scored against Everton in the recent Carabao Cup game, I am never
confident with his penalties, and so it proved, Fabianski saving a tame
effort. This seemed to energise West Ham
and Kasper had to be alert to beat away a rasping drive from Masuaku, the West
Ham full back.
City were clearly the better side but it took until the 40th minute for them to prove this, when a cross from Justin was headed on by Perez to Iheanacho, who had plenty of time to place his header beyond the goalkeeper.
West Ham equalised just before half-time, when an excellent cross from Anderson
was calmly slotted past Kasper by Fornals.
However, Leicester didn’t have to wait long to restore their lead when a slick passing move involving Choudhury, Perez and Gray led to an excellent goal from Gray in the 56th minute – and credit to the referee for playing advantage when Perez was clearly fouled in the build-up.
Gray was subsequently given man of the match by some pundits. After that there were a few concerns but in the event City were able to see out the win comfortably, against a very poor West Ham side. By the time I had got home the sacking of Pellegrini had been announced.
Nobody particularly stood out and I think it unlikely that any of those playing in this game will replace any of the normal first XI. They worked hard and deserved their win but against a better team I think they would struggle. I was particularly sorry that one of my favourite players, Marc Albrighton, seems to have lost his edge and sadly is unlikely to start many games. I had expected Matty James to be on the bench, as he is apparently very close to playing again, but perhaps we will see him very soon.
For the record, Perez was replaced by Maddison in the 64th minute, Mendy by Ndidi in the 70th and Gray by Barnes in the 83rd. The rest of the substitutes were regular starters, apart from the reserve goalkeeper, Ward; Vardy did not travel with the team as his wife had just given birth to their daughter, so congratulations to them.