Having successfully wriggled their way to a point away to the league leaders midweek, Leicester City rounded off a tough week by welcoming Manchester United to the King Power Stadium on Sunday. After a hugely successful run since the change in the dugout, United stuttered against Burnley at Old Trafford and had to produce a last-ditch comeback to snatch a point.
Leicester manager Claude Puel was to make a late decision on whether to involve the club’s latest signing Youri Tielemans, who joined them on loan from Monaco last month, and the judgement was obviously against doing so, but he had no injury concerns.
Lining up against his father’s old club, Kasper Schmeichel took up his place between the posts. Ricardo Pereira on the right and Ben Chilwell on the left covered the fullback positions, with the duo of Harry Maguire and former United centre-back Johnny Evans between them. Wilfried Ndidi partnered Nampalys Mendy at the base of midfield, with James Maddison ahead of them. Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes supplied width in attack spearheaded by Jamie Vardy.
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was hopeful Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial would recover from minor injuries in time for this game. In the end, Pogba was ready to play from the start while Martial sat on the bench. Marcos Rojo was out, but fellow centre-back Chris Smalling was fit and ready to play his part if called upon.
David De Gea was in goal. Ashley Young captained the team in the right-back position, Luke Shaw was on the other side, while Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly played in the heart of defence. Nemanja Matić anchored the three-man midfield where he was joined by Ander Herrera and Pogba. Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez and Marcus Rashford formed a very flexible attacking line.
The First Half
United tried to stamp their authority on the game from the start, but Leicester had ideas of their own. Despite the visitors controlling possession early on, the first chance fell for Leicester after two minutes as Ndidi rose highest and headed wide from a corner. United responded straight away through Rashford who also headed off target from close range less than 60 seconds later.
The game continued in a lively manner, with both ‘keepers called upon to help their respective teams stay on level terms.
However, minute nine was passing when Ricardo inexplicably gave the ball straight to Pogba in the middle of the park, and there was no stopping Rashford’s blast from around 10 yards as the French midfielder found his run in behind with a superb pass lobbed over the Leicester back line.
The early opener gave Solskjaer’s men a visible boost, but the Foxes are rarely put off easily and they managed to force the visitors into some nervy defending. In the 14th minute, Barnes employed Vardy who laid the ball off for Maddison to shoot from inside the box, and Shaw had to get down quickly to block the shot.
United took control of possession after that, but Leicester defended well and Maddison tried to pull a counterattack in the 20th minute, which prompted Lingard to clip his heels from behind and earn a booking.
A good spell from Leicester followed, during which De Gea saved a shot on target by Maddison and Bailly took a hit on the head by Gray’s goal-bound thunderbolt.
Not that the visitors didn’t have their attacking moments. They weaved their net patiently and made the Foxes’ pressing slightly reckless at times. One such instance got Vardy into referee Mike Dean’s book with just over half an hour gone for a late challenge on Lindelof.
The movement of Matić and Rashford was very important for what United were trying to do. Rashford often dropped back (incidentally leaving space up front for Sanchez to run into) to present himself to his teammates as a one-two option, while the Serbian kept popping up wherever a player in red found himself under pressure to provide relief.
On the other hand, Leicester threatened twice in quick succession from corners, but first Maguire fouled Pogba in the air and then Evans missed the target having beaten Bailly to the ball. Three minutes from the break, Ricardo broke on the counter and ran past Matić, who became the third name in Dean’s book after pulling the Leicester right-back down from behind. In the immediate aftermath, Barnes tried his luck from range but failed to bend his shot sufficiently to find the top corner.
Just before the 45 minutes were up, Mendy also saw yellow after up-ending Herrera, before he gave the ball away and enabled Rashford to shoot from 20 yards. Luckily for him, the shot went straight at Schmeichel.
The three minutes of stoppage time passed in a dynamic fashion with both teams playing very quickly, but neither could make it count. Only Ricardo managed to hit the target in that time, but it was a rather hopeful long-range volley and De Gea made easy work of it.
The Second Half
Leicester started the second half very well. First Barnes combined well with Maddison and missed the target from a tight angle from very close range, and then Matić lost the ball and enabled Maddison to force De Gea into a difficult save to deny him from the other side. They also had few corners, but United defended them well before Rashford ruined a counterattack with a poorly weighed pass.
All of that happened within five minutes from the restart, and then United finally managed to work up a spell of possession in the opposition half.
In the 54th minute, there was a slight injury scare for Solskjaer as Evans slid his knee into Pogba’s ankle, but the French international shook it off. Interestingly enough though, the moment was completely missed by the referee, as was another a few minutes later when Pogba went down on the edge of the box after what looked like a pull from behind by Mendy.
Dean didn’t, however, miss Matić takig down Vardy 20 yards from De Gea’s goal, and it was a good position for a good set-piece taker. Maddison stepped up and hit the wall, the rebound fell kindly for Vardy who went for a spectacular overhead kick which De Gea initially spilled, but managed to recover on the very goal-line in front of the onrushing Barnes.
The free-kick was Maddison’s last contribution to the game. Rachid Ghezzal came on from the bench to replace him in the 62nd minute. Solskjaer made his first change five minutes later, with Anthony Martial replacing Sanchez.
To put it simply, Leicester were by far the better team at this point. United tried to keep the ball and play as they did before, but they were forced far back for large spells by the Foxes’ relentless pressing. Not before 70 minutes had gone had United succeeded to turn their possession into a meaningful one.
In the 74th minute, Shinji Okazaki came on to replace Gray, just before a mistake very reminiscent of the ninth-minute one by Ricardo gave Rashford a chance to shoot from 20 yards, but his shot was harmlessly deflected and picked up by Schmeichel.
A rash foul by Shaw on Ghezzal gave Leicester a good set-piece opportunity in a position favorable for a left-footed player some 25 yards out. Ghezzal took it himself and hit the very top corner, but De Gea flew through the air and tipped it over the bar.
Solskjaer decided to test the remaining strength of the Leicester centre-backs late on, and in the 78th minute he sent on Romelu Lukaku to replace Rashford. The Belgian lost his first battle with Maguire and Ricardo took the ball forward down the left flank, forcing Shaw into into a bookable offence. The free-kick was taken towards the far post from where Maguire sent it back across towards Evans, who completely missed the ball at seven yards from the face of the goal.
With the game entering its final 10 minutes and remaining far from settled, tensions rose high and one foul was followed by another. In that exchange, Ghezzal was next in Dean’s book, while Matić escaped receiving the second yellow for what possibly should’ve been a straight red. The referee completely missed him deliberately stamping on the thigh of Barnes.
Puel threw caution to the wind and sent forward Kelechi Icheanacho into the fray instead of Mendy.
With three minutes to go, Barnes broke down the left and squared it for Vardy at 12 yards, but the striker’s low shot went straight at De Gea. Then Solskjaer opted for a defensive change and introduced Phil Jones for Lingard. A Leicester corner was followed by a swift counterattack as Young and Herrera rushed forward. They were joined by Martial who took a shot straight at Schmeichel.
Just as it began looking as if it would be a backs to the wall job for United during the four minutes of stoppage time, Pogba broke forward trying to settle the game and had to be stopped with a foul.
Maguire was now playing upfront. In the dying seconds, a cross from Ghezzal was flicked on by Vardy and found the centre-back in a great position to score, but he couldn’t produce a striker’s instinct and his attempt went very wide.
It was a finely balanced contest and Leicester will be feeling unlucky to come out empty-handed. Both teams put in a lot of effort and created plenty of opportunities, but it all came down to one moment and the ability of Pogba and Rashford to punish a very poor moment from Ricardo. Just for that, it cannot be said that United did not deserve to win.
The Red Devils have now climbed to fifth place, with 48 points from 25 games, though it remains to be seen for how long. Arsenal, who have dropped to sixth, play away to champions Manchester City later in the day.
Meanwhile, Leicester remain firmly in the middle of the pack, relatively safe from relegation and far from a fight for European places. They sit 11th, with 32 points.
LEICESTER CITY: Schmeichel 7, Maguire 7.5, Evans 6, Ricardo 6.5, Chilwell 7, Ndidi 7, Mendy 7, Maddison 6.5 (62′ Ghezzal 8), Gray 6.5 (74′ Okazaki 6), Barnes 7.5, Vardy 7.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 8, Lindelof 7, Bailly 7, Young 7.5, Shaw 7, Matić 7.5, Herrera 7, Pogba 8.5, Lingard 6.5 (90′ Jones N/A), Sanchez 6 (67′ Martial 6), Rashford 8 (78′ Lukaku N/A).
GOAL: Rashford 9′.
YELLOW CARDS: Lingard 20′, Vardy 32, Matić 42′, Mendy 45′, Shaw 80′, Ghezzal 82′, Ndidi 90′, Martial 90′.
REFEREE: Mike Dean.
DATE & VENUE: February 3, 2019, King Power Stadium, Leicester.
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