Leicester City (0), Aston Villa (0) – Finally, A Point At Least

Who celebrates a 0-0 final score?  Usually no one.  Even when a lowly rated team intentionally plays prevent defense against top-teams and they get to the final minutes with no score; at the final whistle, they think about the half chances they had and missed.

Fans expect goals and action, and not an encounter with no goals and, as happened at Filbert Street, no significant saves.  Surely, one of the set of fans must have felt cheated.  Surely Leicester, with the home advantage and the better record, and Vardy back, albeit as a substitute, would have expected to win?

Still, the Foxes are so far off their Premier League form of recent years that there is not enough time left to achieve anything significant domestically.  Meanwhile, they have made up for their poor record at home by reaching the Europa Conference League Semi-Finals against Roma.  Yes, Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

What was important against our Villans was not to carry the sour taste of defeat (as happened in last year’s fixture at home in injury time) just days before their first leg.  Perhaps worse, would have been to lose one of their squad to injury.  On both counts, mission accomplished.

Our claret and blues were similarly loss-averse.  Defeat would have put them at the same point – five consecutive losses – as caused Dean Smith’s demise as manager.

Everyone, or almost everyone, got the message and it was palpable.  Talk about being on the backfoot intentionally.  That was most obvious with respect to Matty Cash and Ashley Young, who appeared to hit an invisible wall when the crossed the halfway line.  In fact, with the exception of Ollie Watkins, the team’s total preoccupation was with preventing any goals against.

It was indicative that manager, Steven Gerrard, made a point to recognize Ollie’s selfless running in his post-game interview. That was totally deserved.  Our striker occupied two defenders (Söyüncü and Fofana), and frequently more, and made more defensive headers from set-pieces than anyone other than Tyrone Mings. 

In addition, he made the best chance of the game – setting up Leon Bailey in front of goal – and counted just about every shot on target that was more than all the Foxes combined.

Oh yes, so who did not get the message?  None other than Leon Bailey.  If anything has to upset a gaffer more than giving up unnecessary free-kicks in-range of one’s own goal, it is doing that repeatedly in the same game.  Chalk that up to Leon!

I am of the mind that Gerrard is showcasing our anomaly (great in Germany and stinks in England) in the hope that someone will make an offer.  The last thing Steven wants is to have the same headache Chelsea has with Ross Barkley.

Even Phillippe Coutinho was able to bridle his creativity and focus on closing down blue shirts, especially coming out of the back, with the result that possession was difficult to retain for both sides, especially in shooting range.

Villa’s McGinn and Ramsey were particularly effective as disruptors.  For our canny Scot, it mostly came from his ability to intercede his rock-solid lower frame between an opposing player and the ball they thought they had.  Poor Nampalys Mendy was victimized so many times that his patience wore thin and he earned a yellow card.  Dewsbury-Hall suffered the same fate.

Young Jacob is more subtle in his pilfery, being uncommonly quick that he is able to nip in and be gone before the opposing player knows it.  That both are dangerous when they have the ball (John with his defense-splitting passes and Ramsey with his flashing runs) that they are at the core of what Gerrard can build upon for the future.

So, with two balanced teams determined not to lose, it was no surprise that the result was a stalemate.   Leicester dominated possession but were so profligate with it that our Villans generated more shots (10) and more of them on-goal (3) than the hosts.  Gerrard’s strategy worked better.  He employed the speed of Watkins and, to a lesser extent, Bailey to run into open spaces for long passes, mostly from the back.  Leicester attempted to pass their way through our solid backline.

As early as the 8th minute, our Villans created an excellent scoring opportunity.  A mediocre pass down the inside left channel posed no danger but it did tempt Fofana to attempt a cushion-header to his fullback, James Justin.  Watkins saw it coming and, when it lacked pace, Ollie was between the two Foxes and racing in possession towards the goal line.

Söyüncü had the angle covered but could do nothing about the sharp pass back to Bailey who had found a good location 10 yards in front of the goal.  The pass was necessarily firm and skipping, but Bailey should have done better than skying it over the bar.

Leicester’s response was to work a ball down their left and have their right full back meet the ball from the cross.  Castagne, the Foxes’ left fullback caried the ball into the Villa half and then stroked a pass to Dewsbury-Hall who had Konsa leaning against him on the touchline.  A neat spin move left the Villa center back adrift, but a slight pull allowed him to recover.  That left the young midfielder to have to repeat the spin move to get open at the goal line from where he zipped a pass through the 6-yard box.  It was slightly deflected by Cash and too fast for Martinez to smother, and it would have been an easy tap-in for Justin if not for a brilliant interception by Young who managed to redirect as his heals were being struck by Justin’s cleats as he slid in.  That was in the 19th minute.

An excellent move and an even better defensive play by an old pro, seemingly improving with age.  Another “old pro” – Coutinho – showed his value when, in the 28th minute, he was step faster to a ball that got away from Daka and he neatly scooped it over the sliding striker and, in the same motion released a pass for Bailey to run clear to goal with.

Disappointingly, it was the retreating Castagne who was quickest off the mark, and he dispossessed the Jamaican international.  Within a minute, the Foxes had won a freekick that Madison converted into a dangerous placement that Söyüncü was inches away from redirecting past Martinez.

It was another freekick that gave the Foxes their next scoring opportunity in the 45th minute.  The prospect came about as Bailey became overly concerned about Madison gaining possession ten yards outside the Villa penalty area facing away.

Over-exuberance led Leon to run into one of the best freekick takers in the Premier League and barge him over.  All Villa fans held their collective breaths as the shot flashed just wide of Emi’s right post. 

Our Villans were able to get one more opportunity before the break and it came from a corner.  Mings jumped highest and looked capable of heading on-goal, only for Fofana to lean into our captain enough to cause the header to go well over the net.

It appeared that both managers were satisfied with their team’s performances as there we no obvious changes in the play in the second half.  Validating Gerrard, Watkins’ was able to carry the ball around the outside of Castagne down the right wing and snap powerful shot from a narrow angle almost caught Schmeichel off the post.  The resilient goalie (played every Leicester game this season) was able to block it behind in the 55th minute.

Then, a neat give and go with Coutinho saw Ramsey with a chance to go outside of Justin in the inside-left channel, only for the fullback to extend a foot and turn the shot into a corner.

A few minutes later, Konsa did well to similarly block out a cross/shot from the goal line on the left only to offset a good play with a play featuring his short fuse that created yet another freekick opportunity for Maddison.  The two came together just outside the penalty area competing for a bouncing ball.

With his size and strength there was no way that Maddison was going to move Ezri out of his path, so the English international midfielder took to a little pushing.  He was summarily thrown to the ground and Konsa had, yet another, yellow card.

Fortunately for us Villa supporters, there are not many dead ball kickers (probably only James Ward-Prowse) who can beat our goalie, but Emi did spill this one but was able to push it away from any blue shirts and Ashley Young cleared.

With ten minutes left in the game, Tim Iroegbunam was in for Douglas Luiz who had added a yellow card to his collection and Buendia had been brought on the Coutinho.  For the Foxes, Vardy (back from injury) was getting a run, in place of Daka, and Harvey Barnes was brought in for the industrious Lookman.  Later, Ayoze Pérez came on for Tielemans and, even later, our Villans had the last word giving Marvelous Nakamba a chance to show himself after an extended injury spell with Ramsey ceding his spot.

Out of all the change, only the impressive composure of the 18-year-old Iroegbunam was notable.  That the composure is based on evident speed and skill is something for all Villa fans to look forward to.

The final whistle came and we all breathed a sigh of relief.  A draw and reason to go home confident of beating Norwich.

Leicester: Schmeichel, Söyüncü, Fofana, Justin, Castagne, Lookman (Barnes 80′), Maddison, Tielemans (Pérez 86′), Dewsbury-Hall, Mendy, Daka (Vardy 71′).

Unused Subs: Ward, Choudhury, Albrighton, Iheanacho, Amartey, Ricardo.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Mings, Young, Coutinho (Buendía 79′), Luiz (Iroegbunam 76′), McGinn, Ramsey (Nakamba 94′), Bailey, Watkins

Unused Subs: Olsen, Chambers, Chrisene, O’Reilly, Ings, Chukwuemeka

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