Leicester City drew 2-2 against Napoli on Thursday night at the King Power in the opening round of the Europa League group stages. Ayoze Perez’s first half opener and Harvey Barnes’ second-half strike gave the Foxes a two-goal lead, but a late brace by Victor Osimhen forced City to settle for a single point.
After sticking with essentially the same lineup and formation in the first four league matches*, manager Brendan Rodgers rang in the changes to start the Europa League campaign. The starting XI: Kasper Schmeichel (C), Timothy Castagne, Jonny Evans, Jannik Vestergaard, Ryan Bertrand, Ayoze Perez, Wilfred Ndidi, Boubakary Soumare, Harvey Barnes, Kelechi Iheanacho, and Patson Daka.
* ”Essentially” being the key word with 6 defenders having already missed matches.
Napoli started on the front foot, but the Foxes should have been in front in the 6th minute against the run of play. Ayoze did well to keep the ball in traffic. His pass pinballed around in the area and fell to Barnes in the 6-yard box with only the keeper to beat. It was a tight angle, but he should have done better than hitting Ospina and seeing the ball go wide of the post.
No matter though, because the City took the lead just moments later and it was in absolutely glorious fashion. Bertrand picked off a cross-field pass and headed it down to Barnes. The future England star hit the afterburners and left his marker in his wake. He tapped the ball to Daka, who returned it with a single touch. Barnes had ages to pick out his cross, and he chose well, finding Ayoze’s late run after Iheanacho drew both defenders to the near post. The Spaniard did incredibly well, volleying the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net.
Lovely goal from Leicester to kickstart their #UEL campaign.— The Athletic UK (@TheAthleticUK) September 16, 2021
Ayoze Perez with a volley from Harvey Barnes' cross... #LEINAP | #LCFC
I hope this video works where you are. It was a special goal.
Both sides were looking to hit on the break, which made for a weird lack of flow to the match. Victor Osimhen was causing all kinds of problems, getting behind the City back line on a regular basis and then making some truly bizarre efforts that were ostensibly meant to have been on goal but you wouldn’t know it from watching them. At the other end, it was Barnes whose pace was bedevilling the defense, but his crossing invariably to the back post whether there was a runner arriving or not.
Napoli should have levelled just after the half-hour mark. Oshimhen got the better of Vestergaard and placed a beautiful pass for the onrushing Piotr Zielinski. Somehow, Castagne dove in between the goal line and the shot and then managed not to handle the rebound. The ball was only cleared as far as Lorenzo Insigne, who was in acres of space and lined up a shot, but he didn’t get the lines quite right and put it wide.
The Foxes continued to ride their luck as half-time approached. A cross from the right was met by an unmarked Chucky Lozano. The Mexico international met it solidly, but Schmeichel made a fine, instinctive save. The ball fell to Fabian Ruiz on the edge of the area and he put his shot on target, but it was no problem for Leicester’s Danish captain. That proved the final action of the half and, even with a goal to the good, it was certainly Brendan Rodgers who was the happier manager to hear the whistle.
“Happy to hear the whistle” usually implies “unhappy with the way the match is going” and that was borne out by the fact that Leicester made two changes at the half. Youri Tielemans and Çağlar Söyüncü came on for Perez and Evans. It did little to stem the tide, as Napoli were still bossing the match and looking far more likely to score.
In spite of this, it was the Foxes who (thought they had) scored next. A series of non-threatening looking passes were played from Bertrand to Iheanacho to Tielemans and finally to Daka, who found himself in space. He nutmegged the keeper and rippled the back of the net, but VAR had other ideas. He was apparently marginally offside. I say “apparently” because I’m not clear on the current interpretation of the offside rule is, but my understanding is of no import here.
2-0! Dakaaaaaaaa!— Fosse Posse (@TheFossePosse) September 16, 2021
Ref can’t stop that one
It didn’t matter, though, as Harvey Barnes double the lead just after the hour mark. Iheanacho picked off a pass in midfield and spotted Barnes’ run down the left. His through ball evaded the defenders but was a little behind the former West Bromwich Albion man. He waited patiently, beat two defenders, and slotted home with his left foot from a difficult angle.
Gli Azzurri weren’t finished, though. Just as it looked like the Foxes were finally in their stride, aball dinked over the top found Osimhen, who outmuscled Vestergaard and lobbed it over Schmeichel to pull one back for the visitors. Rodgers responded by introducing Ademola Lookman for Daka.
With only 15 minutes to play, the Foxes nearly surrendered the dumbest equalizer in the history of ever. Tielemans won a free kick just inside the Napoli half, but he somehow managed to pick out an opponent with his square ball. It was off to the races until Söyüncü intervened in a definitive and highly yellow-card-worthy fashion.
James Maddison was now on for Soumare, a move which I applaud for the aggression but did nothing to stem the tide of red shirts in the Leicester half. Schmeichel did well to deal with a ball over the top to Osimhen but he could do nothing when a cross came in from the left and the Nigeria striker outjumped Söyüncü and glanced the ball into the back of the net.
With just minutes to play, Rodgers threw Vardy into the fray for Iheanacho. Five minutes of time were added on for one side or the other to find a winner. Now’s as good a time as any to point out that the referee was completely out of control in this match. No one had any clue what was or not a foul, a yellow, or a penalty. I’m biased, so take my words with a grain of salt, but it seemed like we were on the wrong end of the majority of the strange calls.
Which is a long way of saying, Ndidi was presented a second yellow deep into injury time and will miss the next match. Anyway, neither side was able to get a third goal and the match ended 2-2 which is probably as fair a result as any.
Honestly, the weird calls seemed totally appropriate for the evening. Leicester looked terribly disjointed for long periods of time and then would pull a world-class goal out of nowhere. Napoli showed some of the worst finishing I’ve ever seen until they didn’t. It really hurts to blow a 2-0 lead, but it’s also a pretty reasonable reflection of how the two clubs performed on this genuinely odd evening.
One point against Napoli isn’t a disaster, but let’s put this one behind us, shall we? Next on the docket is a trip to the Snail City of the South Coast to face Brighton and Hove Albion in the league on Sunday. After that, we travel to London to face Milwall to kick off our League Cup campaign.