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5 things we learned from Leicester v AEK Athens

Turkish delight as Foxes top Group G

Leicester City v AEK Athens: Group G - UEFA Europa League Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

1) Top of the group as Foxes await Monday’s draw

Who would you like the Foxes to face in the draw on Monday? It’s exciting regardless of the opponent to continue our European journey. Finishing top of the group has its perks too; we’re seeded and avoid most of the bigger teams dropping in from the Champions League. The possible list we can draw includes Red Star Belgrade, which would provide an opportunity (twenty years in the making, ahem) for revenge.

We may have taken it to the final game to claim top spot in the group but we made it look easy in the end. As Jake alluded to in the match report, we looked incredibly comfortable during this match. Some of the football on display was mouth-watering and even when the game petered out for a while, we never looked in any danger of an upset. A pleasing result and a step in the right direction that we managed such a good performance without needing Jamie Vardy and James Maddison.

This was the return of free-flowing, attacking football for the Foxes. Factor in that we’ve topped our group despite the injuries and the strain that adds to the squad and it’s more credit to Brendan Rodgers and his players. It also sets up an exciting prospect for the knockout rounds as we should have Ndidi, Ricardo, Soyuncu and Castagne back.

2) Cengiz Ünder’s virtually unplayable display harks back to a certain Algerian winger

Let’s clear something up straight away, anybody who didn’t give Ünder Man of the Match is wrong. If he didn’t get it Barnes did and while he was great, this was a masterclass from the on-loan Roma winger. This was not only his best performance yet for the Foxes, but he was virtually unplayable. There were at least two moments where not just the fact that he beat every single man, but the manner in which he did it, were an absolute joy to behold.

We’ve said that he has shades of Riyad Mahrez, but there was something so enjoyable about the way he approached his football against AEK. A joy I’ve rarely felt since we relished seeing Mahrez cause terror down the right. One particular tricky turn to jink away from the multiple men around him cemented it for me. There’s been sparks, glimpses of what he can do but this was a solid ninety minute demonstration.

Getting his first goal for Leicester seemed to give Ünder an extra zip in his step. It was a thunderbolt of a strike too, leaving the goalkeeper absolutely no chance. Against Zorya, he’d looked desperate for that first goal, never afraid of trying the spectacular. He’d had a bright start but after the goal continued to torment the AEK defenders somewhat relentlessly.

We’ve all spent an hour watching this on a loop, right?

Ünder just brings pure creativity, something we haven’t had on that side since Mahrez. What he tries isn’t always perfect, his age shows at times, but it’s never dull to watch him. His tricks, his turns, his eye for a pass and for a shot will produce more and more for us. It’s about time we unleashed him on the Premier League and he looks ready.

And Leicester taking dangerous corners that looked capable of providing a goal? Oh yes! This could have merited its own lesson were we not spoiled on things to celebrate. Ünder’s delivery was the best we’ve had all season and it’s unfortunate we didn’t score from them. Crucially, they found one of our players almost every time. Looks like it’s the Turkish international’s domain so long as he’s on the pitch.

3) Having Wilfred Ndidi back showed that we really do take him for granted

Sorry, Nampalys Mendy. You made a perfectly fine replacement while we had to cope with Wilfred Ndidi covering as a centre-back and then while injured, but there’s just one problem; you aren’t Ndidi. Watching how effortlessly the Nigerian policed the pitch, supporting Tielemans and protecting the back-line, reminded me of a James Maddison interview after an away game to Chelsea. He pointed out that people just don’t notice everything Ndidi brings and does for the side, but that he’s invaluable to his teammates. Mendy has done nothing wrong so far this season other than not being his colleague. But that’ll be enough to cost him his starting place.

The Ndidi: a feature every team needs. He’ll even make you forget all about N’Golo Kante

Having Ndidi fully fit and back into our midfield is only a good thing. His performance against AEK could easily have been overlooked unless you’re a City fan. On a night where the forward line, and the full-backs had so much joy in getting forward and creating chances, it’d be easy to forget about Ndidi.

His presence in the middle can be quiet if you’re not looking for it, but it was noticeable how much balance it brings. The full-backs can push forward more, it frees up Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet to press too. Particularly key for Praet who too often lately should be playing forward but has to keep coming back.

It’s a boost to have Ndidi back ahead of a busy few weeks and while other players may be giving Rodgers a selection headache, the Nigerian will rightly go back to being one of the first names on the team sheet.

4) Luke Thomas and Harvey Barnes ran the play on the left

Do both of these players deserve a dedicated lesson of their own? Yes. But their partnership down the left flank was so impressive against AEK that a combined lesson feels appropriate. While Ünder gave the Greek side nightmares down the right, those defenders should be grateful that they didn’t have the double threat of Thomas-Barnes to ruin their evening.

As if flying all the way to Leicester for a game that means nothing in the pouring rain hadn’t already crushed their spirits, our forwards piled on the misery. It wasn’t just the pace that they struggled with between Barnes and Thomas, it was the trickery and the overlap, whenever they successfully covered one of them, the other just surged forward. I’m slightly amazed that it only finished 2-0 on reflection.

It was intriguing that it fooled the English broadcasters into thinking that this is a relationship forged from our academy. Barnes looked surprised to get that as a question, reminding the interviewer that he’s a little older than Luke. It’s what stood out the most, that you’d think they’d overlapped like this a lot. In reality, they haven’t actually had the chance to do this in matches too often. It’s a pretty tantalising glimpse at future games. This match offered further proof that the consistency that Barnes struggled for previously is mostly behind him. His post-match interview reflected that ever-developing experience and maturity.

For Thomas, it was a perfect chance for him to continue his progression. It’s easy to forget that he is the child (said Werner Herzog Mandalorian style) in our side, younger than Lil Wes and having only made his senior debut six months ago. Impressive then that he looked confident and assured again. I highlighted his attacking prowess against Leeds last month and this was another showcase. There’s a lot more to come from Thomas and from this pairing.

5) Captain Evans back at his best

Ok, it was a quiet night defensively for the Foxes. We’re owed that after some pretty testing matches and some shaky displays. A clean sheet, even on a night AEK Athens failed to truly test us, will be much welcomed. This was another slightly shifted back-line, Danny Ward deputising for Kasper Schmeichel and Luke Thomas restored to left-back. It felt familiar though, a traditional flat back four that in a match where we dominated possession and chances, suited us.

This was Jonny Evans’ first game wearing the captain’s armband for Leicester. An obvious choice in the absence of Wes Morgan, Schmeichel and Vardy. He’s clearly a commanding presence and helping our younger defenders learn their trade, but he’s a calm head at the back. As much as Ward isn’t particularly young, it was a back-line that looked inexperienced on the surface but turned in an impressive performance.

With Justin and Thomas getting forward a lot, it was important that Evans held his area and when called into action, he did an efficient job, as you’d expect. With time running out on his current contract and Manchester United allegedly realising they spent £80million on somebody who wasn’t as good as somebody they let go five years ago, it’s key that we get our contract talks with him resolved sooner rather than later.

Bonus Learn: Ayoze Perez made his 50th appearance for Leicester (in a good way it feels like he’s been here longer) and it was fitting that it was in a central role again. Thought he was unlucky not to get something from the night. Here’s hoping the next 50 give him the chance to keep playing up top or in just behind, as his brief display last night showed, it’s like having an entirely different player at our disposal.