Leicester City saw off Sheffield United by a score of 2-1 in a dramatic match at Bramall Lane on Sunday. Ayoze Perez and Oliver McBurnie traded first half strikes, but a 90th minute strike by Jamie Vardy gave the Foxes the full three points.
Manager Brendan Rodgers switched to a 3-4-1-2, making several changes to the side that was beaten on Thursday in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Kasper Schmeichel returned between the sticks behind a back three of Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans, and Christian Fuchs. Marc Albrighton and James Justin slotted in as wingbacks, flanking the central midfield duo of Nampalys Mendy and Youri Tielemans. James Maddsion lined up in pocket behind strikers Jamie Vardy and Ayoze Perez.
The match started with great pace and intensity with Blades pressing deep in the Leicester half and the Foxes getting the ball forward quickly and moving the ball with a little more purpose than in recent matches. It was not so much a basketball game as, say, an Australian rules football match.
The Foxes had the first clear chance of the match and went agonizingly close to taking an early lead. Clever footwork by Ayoze at the top of the penalty area gave him a chance to pick out Vardy’s run on the right. The striker wheeled on to the ball and struck it first time with his right foot. It beat Aaron Ramsdale all ends up, but it cannoned back off the post to safety.
The Foxes were well on top for the opening twenty minutes, getting into dangerous positions and then slipping up when on the verge of doing dangerous things from said positions. They were nearly caught out when a casual pass in midfield allowed Oliver Burke to go one-on-one with Schmeichel. The striker looked to take the ball around the Denmark stopper but instead slipped and the ball rolled to the Leicester captain.
The Foxes finally made their dominance pay on 24’. Vardy found Justin deep on the left side. The former Luton Town man’s cross was deflected to Albrighton. He took the ball down on his chest and blasted it towards the goal. The shot was partially blocked, but only as far as Ayoze, whose instinctive snap-shot was too strong for Ramsdale.
The lead proved to be short-lived. Blades won a corner just three minutes later. Oliver McBurnie rose highest for it and planted it inside the far post just between Schmeichel and Albrighton. It was certainly against the run of play, this being United’s first attempt of the match, but it was a quality finish and there wasn’t much that could have been done about it.
Somehow, Leicester failed to retake the lead despite having numerous opportunities. The first was a little strange. Leicester had a free kick in the Blades’ half and, for no apparent reason, Sander Berge decided to put both arms around Tielemans and toss him to the ground. It was one of those dumb fouls you don’t see called because you can’t quite believe it happened. This led to a baffling apologia by the NBC commentators, who said that you don’t want VAR stepping in on that kind of call because “you’re not trying to call a perfect game.”
The hosts probably should have been down to ten men on 40’. Max Lowe, already on a yellow, scythed down Ayoze and missed the ball by a good two yards. It’s a second yellow all day long, but the referee decided to show some mercy when I don’t think anyone in the stadium (which, granted, was a pretty small number) would have blamed him had he produced the card.
The next missed opportunity had nothing to do with the referee. A flowing Leicester move allowed Ayoze to find Madders in the area, approximately where Vardy was when he hit the post. The former Norwich City man unleashed a power drive that, wouldn’t you know it, hit the post.
The whistle blew with City on top and Blades on the ropes, but the score level. Surely Brendan Rodgers would be happy with the character and spirit, but perhaps less so with the scoreline.
Unsurprisingly, the Foxes went with an unchanged XI from the break. The run of play continued in much the same fashion as well. Leicester immediately camped out in the hosts’ half and moved the ball around briskly but couldn’t find any space behind the packed defense.
Sheffield started to come into the game on the hour mark and had a few moments of pressure, but it was City who nearly took the lead. Fuchs swung in a terrific free kick from a deep position. Ramsdale got a hand to it but failed to collect the ball and it fell to Tielemans. The Belgium man scuffed his shot at the open goal, bouncing it off the turf and onto the roof of the net.
Rodgers made his first changes just before the 70’ mark. Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho came on for Mendy and Perez. It nearly paid off immediately as Ramsdale miscued a pass directly to Albrighton. The former Villa man crossed for Vardy, but it was deflected away towards Iheanacho. The Nigeria striker couldn’t get the right touch on the ball and bundled it out for a goal kick.
Both sides nullified each other very effectively over the next twenty minutes. Blades, already in danger of relegation, showed attacking attempt and sent Rhian Brewster into the fray. In spite of the attacking substitutions, neither side was seriously threatening to break the deadlock as play was breaking down in the final third of either side of the pitch.
With the match looking for all the world like ending in a 1-1 draw, out of nothing, the Foxes found a winner in the 90th minute. United were caught out playing a high line and turned the ball over near the halfway line. An absolute pinpoint through ball put Vardy in behind the entire defense. The former Fleetwood Town hitman had only Ramsdale to beat, and beat him he did with a calm finish inside the far post.
Rodgers sent on Dennis Praet to see out the last three minutes, withdrawing Maddison immediately after he had recorded his first assist of 2020. The closest Blades could get no closer to the goal than a couple of over-hit crosses. Three points. Job done. 2-1 to the Foxes.
It will look like the Foxes made hard work of what should have been a comfortable match, but in this case, I think the scoreline was a little misleading. Leicester hit the post twice and had several other opportunities to put the game beyond doubt. The decision to start Ayoze was an inspired one as he was bedeviled the hosts’ back line and the fluidity of the Leicester attack dropped off when he departed.
The victory gives City 21 points from 11 matches which is good enough for 3rd on the table and just a point behind leaders Chelsea. We host AEK Athens on Thursday in Europa League play with an opportunity to take the top spot in our group. Next Sunday, we host Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League.
You can’t un-see it.