Having seamlessly continued their fine season despite the recent injury blows, Tottenham Hotspur welcomed Leicester City to Wembley in the 26th round of the 2018/19 Premier League season.
Spurs have kept close to the leading duo (Liverpool and Manchester City), and coming into this game from eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, they have been maintaining a sort of a dark horse status in the title race. With that in mind, any point they can grab is of vital importance.
Leicester could not be in a more different situation. Sitting firmly in the middle of the table, they have very little chance of reaching a European spot and they’re relatively safe from relegation. A quality team nonetheless, and playing without any pressure.
Harry Kane and Dele Alli remain out and that is certainly the biggest problem Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino had to deal with, but Erik Lamela also joined them on the sidelines for this game. Apart from the attacking trio, central midfielder Eric Dier also missed out. Toby Alderweireld was left on the bench.
Hugo Lloris was in goal. Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez played at the heart of defence, flanked by Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose. Harry Winks, Oliver Skipp and Moussa Sissoko made the three-man midfield, with Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen supporting Fernando Llorente upfront.
Claude Puel made a surprise call to leave striker Jamie Vardy on the bench, while midfielder Nampalys Mendy was out after getting injured during the warm-up.
Kasper Schmeichel stood between the posts. Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans were the centre-back duo, with Ben Chilwell on the left and Ricardo Pereira on the right. Wilfried Ndidi was joined by newcomer Youri Tielemans in centre midfield, while the trio of Rachid Ghezzal, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes played behind Demarai Gray as the striker.
The First Half
The home team successfully imposed their game-plan early on and attacked with determination.
The first excitement of the game came in the third minute when Rose’s cross found Trippier on the far post and the right-back had a volley from close range blocked. Leicester tried to organize and respond, but their efforts were mostly smothered without difficulties.
But in the eight minute, the Foxes threatened from a set-piece as Llorente lost the run of Maguire on the far post and Lloris had to make a good save to deny the Leicester centre-back’s header. The moment gave the visitors a good boost and made their hosts a bit shaky, and Maddison created a great chance for Barnes who cut inside, beat Trippier to the ball and shot just wide of the far post.
It was Spurs’ turn to try and respond and they regained possession, but their efforts mostly consisted of hopeful crosses into the box that were easily dealt with, or optimistic long-range shots that were being blocked on a regular basis.
Minute 15 brought a bit of controversy. Maguire made a mistake which allowed Spurs to charge forward and get the ball to Son inside the box. In his attempt to dispossess the Korean inside the box, Maguire stuck a foot out and there was certainly contact as Son went down, but referee Michael Oliver blew his whistle and booked Son for simulation.
Three minutes later the home side organized a good team move which put Rose into a good chance, but Schmeichel expertly stopped his shot from seven or eight yards. In his frustration, Rose mowed Ghezzal down needlessly and earned a booking.
Tielemans and Barnes linked up nicely after that on the left for Leicester and gave Maddison a chance to shoot from the edge of the box, but the shot went wide of the far post.
A period followed where Spurs tried to control the game and played with lots of possession and Leicester played fairly directly, but until Vertonghen became the third Tottenham name in the book for a late tackle on Chilwell, there were no real excitements.
Then, however, Leicester came close twice in quick succession. Spurs defended the set-piece poorly and Ndidi almost diverted the ball into the net from close range, before Barnes hit another shot from a promising position wide.
But it would be Spurs who struck the first blow in the 33rd minute. Trippier pulled a corner back towards Eriksen and the Dane swung in a good cross just as the Leicester back line pushed forward. Sanchez ran in the other direction, escaped his marker (Maguire) and slammed a header past Schmeichel from six yards.
Surprisingly enough, the game lost a lot of tempo with the deadlock broken. Both teams tried to do something, but neither looked very determined or created a chance until the last second of the two-minute stoppage time when Tielemans almost caught Lloris out from a seemingly impossible position, next to the left-side corner flag. The shot, cleverly disguised as a cross, swerved towards the goal and it would have gone in had Lloris not backtracked quickly and pushed it with some difficulty out for a corner.
The Second Half
Leicester understandably came out from the break with a bit more determination, but their initiative was proving harmless until the 51st minute when Ricardo’s accurate cross found Gray between the two centre-backs, but the striker headed straight into the arms of Lloris.
Following that slightly concerning moment, Spurs snapped out of the stupor and tried to act as the dominant team, but they still couldn’t have everything their way. It took Gray three minutes to threaten again and then he turned around Vertonghen inside the box and fired – straight at Lloris again. Chilwell was next as he was inexplicably allowed to cut inside from the left and shoot, but Lloris was still focused.
It was obvious the Foxes needed a bit more sharpness and some quality in finishing, and as Puel prepared Jamie Vardy to come on, Gray combined with Ndidi and they employed Maddison inside the box. Vertonghen clumsily took Maddison down and the referee blew his whistle, pointing to the penalty spot.
Puel took the chance to make the substitution he was preparing and Vardy came on for Gray. He received the ball in his hands from Maddison, placed it on the spot and shot low to the left, but Lloris guessed right and saved it.
It didn’t take long for Spurs to punish Leicester for that moment of weakness. They closed Pereira down in his own box and his clearance was deflected into the feet of Eriksen, who played a one-two with Llorente and fired from 18 yards, just between the near post and Schmeichel’s outstretched hand and into the net.
Vardy made amends for the missed penalty (up to a point) straight afterwards as he won an aerial battle against Winks and drew Sanchez out of position, before handing it to Barnes on a platter. The young winger was clear, one-on-one with Lloris, but the French international produced another great save.
Soon after, Pochettino made a slight tweak to his system by withdrawing Skipp and sending Toby Alderweireld on. Spurs were now playing in a 3-5-2 shape, with Son joining Llorente up front and Eriksen dropping beside Sissoko and Winks.
With 18 minutes to go, Puel made another change: Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Ghezzal.
But for all the changes, the game was still going on much as it had before, which suited the home team just fine until Leicester suddenly made it a lot more interesting. Ndidi smartly switched the side of attack and employed Ricardo on the right flank. The fullback played a one-two with Tielemans which got him in behind Rose and squared it across the six-yard box, from where Vardy deftly directed it into the net.
Pochettino’s reaction seemed to have a note of panic in it. In the 80th minute, he withdrew striker Llorente and sent on Victor Wanyama, a defensive midfielder.
It was perhaps a prudent choice, but it didn’t help his team much. Just one minute later, Ricardo outsmarted Rose again and whipped in another cross towards Vardy, and the former England striker caught it on the volley over the bar. Then Iheanacho made Vertonghen look useless as he cut inside him and whacked it from 15 yards, just wide of the near post. Leicester were giving it a proper go.
Spurs tried to hit on the counterattack in the 85th minute, and Tielemans was forced to bring Sissoko down from behind and get a yellow card. As the free-kick was taken, Rose played a one-two with Son and burst into the box, slammed into Maguire and cheekily asked for a penalty, but Oliver wasn’t interested.
With two minutes to go, Puel threw his last card on the table and sent Shinji Okazaki into the fray in the place of Barnes.
It looked as if it would be a back to the wall job for Spurs for the rest of the game, but just as the four minutes of stoppage time started running, it all fell apart for Leicester.
As the Foxes attacked and Chilwell sent a cross in, Sanchez’s clearance went behind the backs of the entire Leicester team and Son was off, running alone with the ball straight towards Schmeichel. He made no mistake.
It was a strange game to say the least, one where the lack of pressure on Puel’s team and his experiments actually helped their opponents. The qualities of Maguire are well-known by now. Tielemans, Gray, Barnes, Maddison, they all showed great potential and should Leicester keep the core of this team, their future could be very bright. The 32-year-old Vardy showed his sharpness and finishing skills once more, but he simply wasn’t given enough time to influence the game properly.
As for Spurs, they will gladly take the points that will help their cause greatly, regardless of the somewhat tame overall performance.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Lloris 9, Sanchez 8, Vertonghen 6.5, Trippier 6.5, Rose 6 (88′ Walker-Pieters N/A), Winks 7, Skipp 6 (70′ Alderweireld N/A), Sissoko 7.5, Eriksen 8, Son 7, Llorente 6.5 (80′ Wanyama N/A).
LEICESTER CITY: Schmeichel 7, Maguire 7.5, Evans 7, Chilwell 7, Ricardo 7, Ndidi 7, Tielemans 7, Ghezzal 6 (72′ Iheanacho 6.5), Maddison 7, Barnes 7.5 (88′ Okazaki), Gray 6 (59′ Vardy 7).
GOALS: Sanchez 33′, Eriksen 63′, Vardy 76′, Son 90’+1.
YELLOW CARDS: Son 16′, Rose 20′, Vertonghen 28′, Tielemans 85′.
REFEREE: Michael Oliver.
DATE & VENUE: February 10, 2019, Wembley Stadium, London.
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