Leicester City fell to Zorya Luhansk by a score of 1-0 on a cold night at the Slavutych Arena in Europa League action. The hosts’ victory came courtesy of an 85th minute strike by Allahyar Sayyadmanesh. The match marked the first time an English club was defeated by a team from Ukraine.
Leicester are such a feast or famine team.— Arlo White (@arlowhite) December 3, 2020
This performance was very “Holodomor, 1932”
With qualification for the knockout stages assured, manager Brendan Rodgers left some of his ever-present stars home for the trip to Zaporizhzhia, but that doesn’t make the starting XI any less exciting. Three long-term absentees made their return in a lineup featuring Danny Ward in goal behind a back four of Ricardo Pereira, Wes Morgan, Çağlar Söyüncü, and James Justin. Defensive midfielders Hamza Choudhury and Wilfred Ndidi slotted in behind an attacking midfield trio of Harvey Barnes, Dennis Praet, and Cengiz Ünder. Kelechi Iheanacho lined up as the lone striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
If there were hopes that the reversion to a back four would immediately tighten up the defense, those were dashed a mere three minutes into the match. The Ukrainian side were able to able to carve open the defense and get three men into the box to the Foxes’ two, but Vladislav Kochergin’s shot was too close to Ward and the Welsh stopper was able to parry it.
Just three minutes later, Ndidi’s rust was on display as he gave away free kick on the edge of the area. It was a poor effort, but a deflection took it out for a corner and then another, but the danger was comfortably cleared. Thankfully, things settled down after that as the Leicester defense settled down and the Zorya attackers weren’t able to find the gaps.
Söyüncü’s comeback only lasted a quarter of an hour, as he pulled up with an injury without any apparent contact by an opponent. He put the ball out of play and went down immediately. Rodgers subsequently brought on Wesley Fofana for the Turkey international.
Not a great deal happened over the next fifteen minutes or so, but the majority of it was not happening in the Zorya half, so that was improvement for the Foxes. Ünder in particular was doing some fine work on the right wing which was being undone by his less-fine work as he approached the box.
The Foxes ought to have taken the lead right on the half hour. Barnes won the ball on the halfway line and found Iheanacho on the edge of the area. The Nigeria man returned the ball to Barnes who slid a perfect ball to Ünder charging into the area with only the keeper to beat. His right-footed effort eluded Nikola Vasiljevic but rolled just wide of the far post.
It was the hosts’ turn to threaten the goal next. Barnes cleared a corner as far as the Luhansk left back Andrej Ciganiks. He struck it sweetly first time, but Ward was equal to it and parried the goal-bound effort.
That about did it for the eventful-but-not-always-eventful-in-a-good-way first half. No goals, or even shots on goal for the Foxes, but it they did have the best chance of the half for what that’s worth.
Rodgers withdrew Ricardo at the half, presumably for no reason other than to try monitor his minutes as he returns from a nine month layoff. Luke Thomas came on at left-back, with Justin switching over to the right. The Foxes started the half brightly, with Ünder going just over with a curling effort and then just overhitting a ball for Barnes just in front of goal.
It was the Muzhyky who nearly broke the deadlock when Ciganiks turned Justin inside-out and lined up an inviting cross. Vladlen Yurchenko rose highest to meet it, but his effort cannoned off the crossbar with Ward well beaten.
The gaffer made a double substitution just ten minutes into the half, sending Nampalys Mendy and Christian Fuchs on for Ndidi and Morgan. Mendy made an immediate impact with a crunching sliding tackle on Yurchenko, winning the ball cleanly but being rewarded with a foul and a yellow card for his hard work.
Things got really tetchy over the next fifteen minutes or so. There were good fouls, bad fouls, fouls that were fouls. What there were not, however, was shots. That changed on 75’ when Mendy won a free kick deep in the Zorya half. Ünder’s delivery was absolutely perfect as he picked out Fofana unmarked directly in front of the goal. The former Lille defender whipped his neck and blasted the ball a dozen yards wide when he might have done better to just let it strike his forehead and guide it into the net.
Rodgers cast his last toss of the dice and sent James Maddison on for Praet. The Foxes suddenly sprung to life when Iheanacho won the ball, lost it, won it back, and forced a good save with a low drive towards the far post. Vasiljevic spilled it and Maddison was the first to the rebound, but the keeper was able to parry the former Norwich man’s shot.
The Foxes would rue the missed opportunity when Zorya took the lead with just five minutes to play. A mishit clearance by Justin gave the Ukrainian outfit the ball deep in the Leicester half. Luhansk played it from left to right and found Denis Favorov’s marauding run into the box. His low ball across the face of the goal eluded the entire defense and found substitute Allahyar Sayyadmanesh alone at the back post. The Iran teenager couldn’t, and didn’t miss, giving the hosts a 1-0 lead.
The Foxes came inches from equalizing when Maddison was fouled just outside the box. Everyone switched off as they waited for the whistle that wouldn’t come and the ball rolled to Ünder, whose curling effort was on target but pushed over by Vasiljevic. City won a corner, their first, deep into injury time but it was overhit and went out for a goal kick as time expired.
James Maddison can’t beat the first man on free kicks and corners. Pass it on. #lcfc— WTFox (@WTFox1884) December 3, 2020
What? Don’t be silly. He beat ALL the men on that last corner. Theirs, ours, and probably the assistant referee, too.
With three players returning from injury and playing an unfamiliar formation with two defensive midfielders, it was never likely to be a fluid attacking display from Leicester. However, with a front three of Iheanacho, Barnes, and Ünder, you would have expected a shot on target before the final quarter hour. I’d rate this as a better performance than the ones against Liverpool and Fulham, but that is a low bar to clear.
Of course, how our players trying to regain fitness fared was arguably more important than the result. Ndidi and Ricardo looked rusty and a bit off the pace, but both appeared to get through their time on the pitch without any new concerns. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Söyüncü, who had to come off after just fifteen minutes after apparently suffering a recurrence of the same injury that has kept him out since the first international break.
The defeat leaves the Foxes on 10 points from 5 group matches. We remain top of the group, level with Braga on points but ahead on goal differential. We face Sheffield United on Sunday at Bramall Lane, and then we host AEK Athens in our final group match a week from today. We have already qualified for the knockout rounds, but we need to match or better Braga’s result against Luhansk to finish top of the group.