Leicester City ran out 2-0 winners over Southampton in a hard-fought affair that looked as though it could have gone either way for long periods of time. A first-half strike from James Maddison and a Harvey Barnes injury time goal in the second period provided the margin for the Foxes, who climb to second on the table.
Even with the injury to Dennis Praet last weekend, manager Brendan Rodgers is soon going to be facing a serious selection headache. He made two changes to the starting XI that saw off Stoke City in the FA Cup. Kasper Schmeichel retained his place in goal behind a back four of Timothy Castagne, Wesley Fofana, Jonny Evans, and James Justin. Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi lined up as the deep midfielders behind Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, and Marc Albrighton in advanced roles. Jamie Vardy came back into the side as the lone striker. This bench welcomed the return of Ricardo Pereira and Cengiz Ünder, as well as Çağlar Söyüncü, who came through his cameo at Stoke without suffering any setbacks.
Leicester came out of the gates in a worryingly jittery fashion, something that’s become common when playing at home this year. Barnes and Tielemans were the main culprits, dribbling into multiple defenders and losing the ball, or not putting enough zip on a pass and giving it away. You can probably guess who was guilty of which. The Saints were looking dangerous on the break, but neither side managed a shot in the first ten minutes.
It was a bit against the run of play when the Foxes fashioned the first chance of the match. Fine play by Albrighton and Castagne on the right saw a ball poked towards Vardy in the penalty area. He might have taken it on the turn, but instead let it run to the onrushing Barnes. His piledriver effort was on target, but Soton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy made a fine diving stop.
Make no mistake though, the run of play was largely in the other direction as Che Adams got behind the defense several times only to be thwarted by Evans or, on one occasion, Schmeichel. The back line were doing yeoman rearguard work, but they were having to do it far too often for Brendan Rodgers’ liking.
As the match reached the half hour mark, the Foxes were starting to impose themselves on the match and spend sometime knocking it around the visitors’ area. Ndidi nicked the ball off of Ibrahima Diallo and sent it out to the right, where Castagne rolled a ball into the path of Vardy, who completely whiffed on the first-time effort.
I’m told that this is a complement and, that being the case, I am fully in agreement. Ndidi is, by all objective measure, “so sick.”
No matter, though, as City took the lead just moments later. Ndidi recovered the clearance and gave ball to Tielemans. His through ball found Maddison deep in the area at a genuinely dreadful angle. Would he pull it back for Vardy or Barnes, both of whom were well-positioned to take advantage? Nah, he just blasted it inside the near post into the roof of the net.
The Saints nearly leveled when Ryan Bertrand of all people was sent free and clear into the area one-on-one with Schmeichel. The former England left back blasted it on target, but Schmeichel was more than up to it, getting both hands on it and putting it over the bar. That proved the last goalmouth action of the half, and the Foxes might count themselves a little fortunate to go into the tunnel up 1-0.
Both sides emerged from the tunnel unchanged, but it didn’t take long for Rodgers to make his first switch. With referee Stuart Atwell the most active man on the pitch and Fofana on a yellow, the gaffer introduced Söyüncü in place of the French defender. If the first half resembled a basketball game, this was more like a hockey match with a lot of contact and the referee’s whistle sounding ever few seconds.
With Southampton needing to find a goal, Leicester were seeing opportunities on the break but falling at the penultimate hurdle. Justin was the first to squander an opportunity, playing a heavy pass to Barnes behind the defense that prevented the winger from getting the right cross in to the waiting Vardy. The next time down the pitch, it was Maddison who had a chance to play in Vardy, but the ball was wide and the opportunity was lost.
Last season’s top scorer was guilty of squandering a couple of opportunities himself; Barnes stood up a cross that somehow evaded Jan Bednarek and found the striker’s head, but he looped it over the bar. A few minutes later, he was finally given a ball to run on to behind the defense, but he took it wide and couldn’t find an angle.
It was wide open at this point, and the Saints were millimeters from going level. Stuart Armstrong was given entirely too much space on the edge of the area and he unleashed a thunderbolt that beat Schmeichel but came back off the bar. Evans barged over Jack Stephens going for the rebound, but the Southampton defender was well offside.
The Foxes then came agonizingly close to finding a second when Albrighton chased down a lost cause on the right and crossed the ball to the far post. The defense collapsed around Vardy in the center, leaving Barnes alone at the back post. The winger’s scuffed shot beat McCarthy, but Bednarek cleared it off the line as Vardy was already celebrating the goal.
Rodgers then made his second substitution, sending on Ayoze Perez for Madders. The former Newcastle man made an immediate impact, bamboozling two Southampton defenders on the right wing and then delivering the ball to Vardy, but his strike was well-blocked. The striker had another golden opportunity on 85’, with Justin providing a diagonal ball that took out the entire Saints defense. The former Fleetwood Town man took out his defender with a deft touch, but McCarthy got just enough on the ball to see it trickle wide of the net.
As the match went into the five minutes of injury, Rodgers introduced Kelechi Iheanacho for the limping Vardy. The Saints attempted to play patiently and won a corner on 93’, but it was cleared by Evans, and Armstrong’s follow up effort was high and wide.
The Foxes belatedly put the game to bed when Tielemans picked out Barnes’ run in acres of space. The former academy man kept his cool and beat McCarthy with a lovely finish into the far corner. It was a fitting capstone on an excellent team performance.
That was...eventful. The first half was a cagey one, as both sides had only two shots but each of them were dangerous. The second half was wide open with the Foxes attempting fourteen shots but only finding the back of the net with the last one. 2-0 can be a comfortable scoreline, but that was not the case today and the team showed some serious backbone by securing this victory.
Leicester (2.57) 2-0 (0.51) Southampton— The xG Philosophy (@xGPhilosophy) January 16, 2021
Perhaps a bit lucky in the first half, but the scoreline didn’t lie, did it?
The win gives the Foxes 35 points from 18 matches played, which means safety could be all but assured at the halfway mark. More importantly, we’re second on the table a point behind leaders Manchester United who face a stern test in Liverpool tomorrow. Speaking of stern tests, we host Chelsea on Tuesday and then it’s off to Hounslow to face Brentford in the 4th round of the FA Cup.