Leicester City battled holders Manchester City to a 1-1 draw in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening, but the Foxes struggled with their penalties and lost the shoot-out 1-3. An early Kevin De Bruyne goal was canceled by a fine Marc Albrighton strike in the second half and neither team was able break the deadlock in regular time.
Even with a spot in the semi-finals hanging in the balance, manager Claude Puel kept his faith in many of the player who had carried the Foxes this far. Shootout hero Danny Ward was between the sticks behind a back line of Danny Simpson, Çağlar Söyüncü, captain for the night Harry Maguire, and Christian Fuchs. Hamza Choudhury, Vicente Iborra, and Wilfred Ndidi comprised a midfield three behind attackers Demarai Gray, Rachid Ghezzal, and Kelechi Iheanacho.
It took about 30 seconds for the match to settle into exactly the rhythm that everyone expected: Manchester City bossed possession as Leicester sought to absorb the pressure and strike on the break. It very nearly worked in the opening five minutes as Fuchs set Gray free down the left and the former Birmingham man drove past his defender and attempted to catch the Iheanacho in front of the net. The low cross was cut out and, with no other dark blue shirts joining the attack, the chance went begging.
One man in the box. No one, NO ONE!!! breaking there neck to get up there, while Man city have 5 men to Iheanacho. #lcfc— WTFox (@WTFox1884) December 18, 2018
If there is one rule playing against Manchester City, the one player you absolutely must close down, it has to be Kevin De Bruyne, doesn’t it? This particular piece of wisdom seems to have eluded the Leicester defense, and the Belgium midfielder was afforded far too much time on the edge of the area to pick out his shot. He looked up and just passed the ball inside the near post without swinging his leg back at all and just beyond the reach of Ward. He made it look easy, but probably not one player in twenty makes that shot. Which is, to belabor the point, exactly why you close him down.
As is so often the case, going down a goal injected some energy into the Leicester attack. After a couple of scares when it looked as though the Citizens were going to break the game open, Gray very nearly brought the Foxes level. His shot took a slight deflection and was bound for the corner before Aro Muric got a finger to it and turned it wide.
The first half ended looking very much like you would have imagined: Manchester City had 73% of the possession, but only outshot Leicester City by a margin of 6-4 with both sides having a single shot on target. The visitors’ lead was probably just deserved, but the Foxes were still very much in the hunt.
The Foxes were nearly down by two goals before the fans had returned to their seats to start the second half. A midfield melee saw the ball fall to Riyad Mahrez, whose perfectly-weighted through ball sent Sergio Aguero free on goal, but his shot was well-saved by Ward and cleared to safety by Maguire.
Puel waited all of seven minutes of the second period before making his first change of the match. James Maddison came on for Ghezzal in a like-for-like change as the Foxes searched for an equalizer. What followed were a couple of promising moves that broke down as Iheanacho was on a different page than both Gray and Fuchs.
Both teams were showing strong attacking intent with neither of them converting that intent into much in the way of danger. Aguero had a great opportunity to double the lead, but his snap shot was directly at Ward and lacked the venom to trouble him. At the other end, a sumptuous Fuch ball into the area eluded both centre-halfs, but just evaded Ndidi would have had the goal at his mercy.
The next substitution was another positive one, with Marc Albrighton sent into the fray for Iborra. He won a corner shortly after his introduction. Maddison’s cross was cleared only as far as Gray, who turned the ball back out to the former Norwich City man. The second ball was met by Maguire, whose effort lacked power and was gathered by Muric.
The Foxes equalized out of absolutely nowhere, but it was pretty enough that I’m not going to complain (full disclosure: I will never complain about a Leicester goal under any circumstances). Wilfred Ndidi, standing just over the midfield stripe, saw Albrighton’s run down the right channel. The pass was near-perfect, and the former Villa man’s touch to bring it down was sublime. He took it in stride and struck a fierce half-volley that gave the keeper no chance. Game on!
And very nearly “Game off.” Puel sent Ricardo Periera on for Iheanacho because the man is positively allergic to recognized strikers. The visitors, now, looking for another gear to put the game away, worked the ball to substitute Gabriel Jesus on the edge of the area. As the Brazil striker entered the area, Choudhury tackled from behind, getting nothing whatsoever of the ball and quite a bit of the man. Nothing was called, but you’ve certainly seen them given. In fact, you’ve probably seen them given more often than not.
The #LCFC fans have just cheered a huge Choudhury tackle like it was a goal. A new fans' favourite?— Rob Tanner (@RobTannerMerc) December 18, 2018
Note: This tweet is almost certainly nothing to do with the action described above.
That would prove to be the last significant action of the match. Thanks to the every-changing rules regarding League Cup matches, this meant that the tie would be decided on penalties.
LEI: Maguire shoots low left. Muric gets a hand to it, but it goes in. (1-0)
MC: Gündogan goes low right. Ward gets a hand to it, but he can’t stop it. Sound familiar? (1-1)
LEI: Fuchs goes high left but blasts it over the bar. (1-1)
MC: Sterling attempts a cheeky chip and couldn’t have got it more wrong as it goes over the bar. (1-1)
LEI: Maddison goes low left after a stuttering run-up and it is well saved by Muric (1-1)
MC: Gabriel Jesus stutters and slips, but he sends Ward the wrong way and scores. (1-2)
LEI: Söyüncü’s tentative run-up suggests, correctly as it turns out, that he does not want to take a penalty. His shot is directly into the chest of Muric. (1-2)
MC: Zinchenko, looking for all the world like De Bruyne buries it because of course he does. (1-3)
Well, that was disappointing. We played well, certainly well enough to nick it, but in the end, our luck in penalties just ran out. Or maybe it was our ability; those were some pretty poor penalties. It was an opportunity to knock a really good team out of the cup and we just couldn’t quite get it done.
The performances, though? There was a lot to like. Gray was a menace the entire match and was unlucky not to score. Simpson, yes, Danny Simpson, was a rock on the right, and the “oh how I hope this is our midfield of the future” pairing of Ndidi and Choudhury made things very uncomfortable for the Citizens. This was a defeat, but as defeats go, this wasn’t the worst.
Kudos to the Leicester fans who treated Riyad Mahrez as the returning hero he is rather than booing a man who played such a major role in our famous season. It helps, of course, that Mahrez was anonymous for long stretches of play, but it’s not like we haven’t seen that once or twice before, right?
Our next match sees us travel to London yet again to face Chelsea on Saturday, and then we return home on Boxing Day to face (*checks notes*) Manchester City. If we can get anything out of either of these matches, I think it would qualify as a bonus and perhaps kick start the second half of what has been a difficult year so far.