Leicester City welcome Aston Villa to the King Power Stadium for their EFL Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday night.
Both have a decorated history when it comes to English football’s third most important domestic trophy, but it’s fair to say whoever reaches the final will be the underdog, though Leicester are proving anything but inferior to Manchester City.
As for the match itself, they couldn’t be entering this contest in more contrasting form; the Foxes are on a three-match winning streak in all competitions whilst Villa – in the middle of an injury crisis – arrive on the back of being dumped out of the FA Cup by Fulham.
But what will happen in this showdown? We’ve put five predictions together….
1. Vardy back in Rodgers’ starting XI
There’s no question who is Leicester’s most influential player. Jamie Vardy is a man possessed this season having scored 17 goals across 21 matches, albeit those strikes have all come in the Premier League, with the striker failing to register in two previous EFL Cup appearances. That being said, with the business end of 2019/20 approaching, anyone would want a striker in Vardy’s form.
Brendan Rodgers hasn’t need to call upon him of late. Vardy was given time off to spend with his family before sustaining a calf injury all of which saw him miss the Foxes’ last three outings (all of which ended in wins). But with a final on the line, expect Rodgers to unleash him against Villa, especially given his recent exploits against Dean Smith’s men. Vardy, with the kind of service he’s been getting, can take this semi-final game away from the visitors tonight.
2. Grealish to receive the most fouls
Villa’s hopes seem to rest on the shoulders of their very own maestro Jack Grealish who’s been attracting plenty of attention this season. And not just off the field. He’s the Villans’ top scorer in all competitions (eight goals) as well as having created a further six for his teammates. This, unsurprisingly, makes him a target for opponents.
Aside from end-product, he’s a tricky customer given his fleet-footedness and mobility, which makes him one of English football’s more eye-catching midfielders, so is it any shock to know that Grealish is the most fouled Premier League player? His 88 fouls won is 20 more than second placed Wilfried Zaha. His previous meeting with Leicester saw them bring him down on no fewer than six occasions, expect a similar number, as well as him being the most fouled man in the game.
3. The Foxes to score from a fast break
It’s easy to make comparisons with this current Leicester team and the one Claudio Ranieri incredibly led to a championship three years ago. But there are subtle differences, notably their playing style, with Rodgers preferring a more considered build-up and being less reliant on swift counters, hence dominating possession. However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rodgers’ men – who play on the front foot laced with speed – haven’t exactly shun what previously made them English football’s first among equals.
Given their steadfastness to pressing football there’s always a danger their opponents can turn the tables against them. No side has attempted more fast breaks (27) than Leicester in the Premier League this season – with six of those resulting in a goal (again making them number one in this category) – and given we’ll likely see their strongest available team against Villa, including Mr. ‘play on the last defender’s shoulder’ Vardy, expect this goalscoring method to rear its head in the East Midlands especially as their visitors will not be content to sit back.
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4. Kodjia will continue to blow cold
The loss of Wesley has no doubt hurt Villa even if the Brazilian marksman hasn’t exactly been pulling up any trees. A total of six goals across 22 games, before his season was ended by a serious knee injury, is paltry for a record signing but you have to factor in quality of service. Villa’s approach to games and playing style have not helped his cause and he does not yet deserve to be written off.
But what his absence does is expose the bare cupboard which Smith has opened. Jonathan Kodjia, his understudy, is now likely to fill in for Wesley unless Villa jump into the January transfer window. Olivier Giroud, who can barely get any playing time at Chelsea, is a possible solution. Kodjia, who has unconvinced when given a run out this season, will have trouble keeping either Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü honest.
5. A mountain to climb for Villa after 90 mins
We are expecting a long 90 minutes for Villa who come into this game having lost six of their last eight matches on the road in all competitions. Two losses from this miserable run were damaging, the first being a 3-0 humbling by a 10-man Watford side. Regardless of any new manager’s bounce under Nigel Pearson (and lack of luck), this was a dire showing and only solidified many opinions that Villa will lose their Premier League status this term.
The second was more recent in the form of a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Fulham in the FA Cup third round and such a poor result is the last thing you want to experience before going into the Foxes’ den.
Leicester have been irresistible under Rodgers this season. Their only defeats have come against members of English football’s so-called ‘big six’. After Liverpool and Man City you will be hard pressed to find a more exciting team on these shores.
Villa witnessed such ruthlessness first-hand when the 2016 league champions left Birmingham with a 4-1 win under their belt last month. Back then Villa had the more accomplished Tom Heaton between the sticks, but with the goalkeeper also out for the season with a serious knee injury, Wednesday evening will no doubt be Örjan Nyland’s biggest test to date.