Evidence of the Premier League title is everywhere at Leicester City but the aura has gone and Leeds United allowed an opportunity to slide away from them last night. Late goals from Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez ended United’s run in the Carabao Cup as Leicester stomached an early concession and wriggled off the hook.
A defeat in the fourth round will not keep Thomas Christiansen awake at night, not with Sheffield United to come in the Championship on Friday, but United’s head coach was not alone in thinking that the tie might have been different without the mess which led to Leicester’s first-half equaliser.
Leeds had a trouble Premier League club where they wanted them after 26 minutes, ahead through a beautiful Pablo Hernandez strike, but a soft reply in quick time stopped panic setting in.
Leicester levelled through Kelechi Iheanacho, helped by indecision from a goalkeeper in Felix Wiedwald who slipped ever further from Christiansen’s preferred line-up, and the swift recovery was what City needed to take the sting out of a potential upset.
Their impetus lost, Leeds failed to re-establish it again and Leicester passed up several glaring chances before Slimani – himself guilty of an awful miss – timed his run to slide Iheanacho’s delivery into the net on 71 minutes. Riyad Mahrez removed any doubt with a classy goal minutes from the end.
From an earlier position of strength, United could not deny Leicester’s right to a place in the quarter-finals.
United reached the last eight last season and will reflect that the chance was there again at the King Power Stadium last night but Leicester’s lack of a permanent manager was not the same as an absence of match-winning players. Slimani weighed in at a cost of £29m and Iheanacho’s fee reached a similar level. Michael Appleton, the club’s caretaker, sent on Mahrez in the second half and Jamie Vardy before the end. Against a weakened Leeds’ side, the numbers told.
Leicester were a long way from the peak of their 5,000-1 title trip when the clubs last met in 2014, a team who Leeds spent several years tangling with in the lower leagues, but the pair are as close as they have been in all the time since.
Leeds sit six points off the top of the Championship while Leicester lie the same margin above the bottom of the Premier League, reinforcing the fact that neither side could afford to invest too heavily in the League Cup.
Leicester, nonetheless, pushed the boat out further than Leeds, making eight changes to Christiansen’s 10 and flogging tickets cheaply to pack out their ground.
Appleton, the club’s assistant, wants the job left vacant after Craig Shakespeare’s sacking last week and a win away at Swansea City on Saturday was a good start.
Last night’s tie was more of a slog but the outcome can do him no harm.
Leeds felt their way into it but 10 quiet, dangerless minutes were enough to draw Christiansen’s players out of defensive shape.
Jay-Roy Grot forced a save from Ben Hamer after a one-two with Kemar Roofe, producing a finish which Hamer blocked with his legs and diverted away from other Leeds players lurking in his box, and a curling finish from Roofe found Hamer waiting on his goalline.
It did not take long for United to think that, despite Christiansen’s pre-match warnings, Leicester were there for the taking.
They were convinced of that, albeit briefly, on 26 minutes when Hernandez opened the scoring. Roofe had looked spritely from the start and his quick feet helped the ball to Hernandez who danced away from Marc Albrighton and Andy King on the edge of Leicester’s box before cracking a shot in off the underside of Hamer’s crossbar. Leicester’s hoofing of possession prior to the Spaniard’s goal deserved nothing less.
United’s advantage, however, was annoyingly short-lived. Four minutes later, Roofe’s blocked shot at one end allowed Leicester to guide the ball upfield and Wiedwald – dropped by Christiansen after a number of errors 10 days ago – dived weakly and slowly into a challenge on Islam Slimani, bundling the bouncing ball out Iheanacho. The Nigerian sized up the net and, with Wiedwald scrambling to recover, pinged a shot into the bottom corner.
If nothing else, the exchange of goals brought the game to life. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, the little-used left-back on loan from Manchester United, produced a timely sliding tackle to halt a dangerous Leicester counter-attack in full flow and Demarai Gray pulled a low shot inches wide on 36 minutes. Further sights of goal for Iheanacho and Albrighton left Leeds looking for half-time, even before Gray rattled Wiedwald’s bar from long range in the 43rd minute. It was hard to avoid the feeling that United had conspired to bring Leicester into the contest.
Borthwick-Jackson was lost to injury at the interval, cutting short a rare chance to persuade Christiansen of his talent, and Leicester continued to force the pace.
The lead should have been theirs when an under-hit backpass from Pontus Jansson sold Wiedwald short on 54 minutes, allowing Slimani to cross to King. With an empty goal to aim at, the midfielder hooked a rushed volley beyond the far post.
Appleton’s side went closer again on the hour as Slimani inexplicably headed over when Albrighton laid the ball on the plate with a cross from the right.
City’s boss threw his weight around soon after by calling Mahrez up from the bench as Christiansen turned to Hadi Sacko to replace the ineffective Pawel Cibicki, and the winner which appeared to be coming arrived 19 minutes from time.
Iheanacho took a pass in behind Shaughnessy and drove into Wiedwald’s box, scattering United’s defence and laying on a pass which even Slimani could not fail to slide in from point blank range.
Appleton sensed that the tie was won but sent on Vardy for good measure 10 minutes from time and Mahrez made sure by sprinting off the right wing and curling a left-footed finish around Wiedwald.
Such is life in the Premier League, even for a club in turmoil.