Leicester City came from behind to snatch a 1-1 aggregate scoreline against Aston Villa in the first leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final tie.
Brendan Rodgers’ side started as many would have predicted, dominating the ball and surging forward, but it would be the five-time winners of this competition who took an unexpected lead after Frederic Guilbert tucked home from close range, giving the travelling Villans a half-time cushion.
The narrative remained the same after the break, with Leicester continuing to exert a high press, which eventually paid dividends as Kelechi Iheanacho combined with Jamie Vardy to equalise in the 74th minute and level the tie.
It was a pulsating battle in the East Midlands and both these sides will have to do it all over again on January 28 for the second leg, but who were the winners and losers from this first instalment of the Carabao Cup semi-final?
Winner: Hamza Choudhury
The 22-year-old midfielder may have a big job on his hands in these coming weeks with confirmation that Wilfred Ndidi sustained an injury in training and may need surgery, which could keep him sidelined for at least a month, but those of a Foxes persuasion may not be quite so concerned after the exploits of Choudhury this evening.
Granted, the Loughborough-born enforcer isn’t quite on the level of his midfield teammate, but he certainly illustrated his best impression of the Nigerian anchorman tonight with his crunching challenges, intelligent positional play and tenacious application on the pitch.
The academy graduate came on for the more attack-minded Praet – a move which baffled some given that Leicester trailed at the time – but his ability to safeguard the backline and procure the ball allowed the likes of Tielemans and Maddison to push forward and wreak havoc in the final third.
However, it wasn’t just Choudhury’s industrious endeavours that caught the eye this evening, but rather his timely tackles, with one in particular on Douglas Luiz bringing about Leicester’s much-needed equaliser.
And so with Ndidi set for a lengthy period on the treatment table, Rodgers needn’t fear quite so much as Choudhury looks more than capable of filling the void. Certainly if tonight’s showing is anything to go by
Loser: Dennis Praet
The 25-year-old hasn’t quite had the impact many would have been expecting of him following his much-anticipated summer move from Sampdoria, but the six-capped Belgium international has showcased glimmers of his undoubted potential when he has taken to the field, though not tonight.
Playing as part of a three-man central midfield in Rodgers’ unorthodox 3-5-2, Praet proved largely ineffective, failing to cause the Villa backline significant problems, and subsequently coming off at half-time for Hamza Choudhury.
He certainly saw plenty of the ball as Leicester dominated and dictated the play in the first half but for someone of his innate creativity and passing talents, Foxes fans can be forgiven for expecting more of the midfielder.
His 94 per cent passing accuracy certainly looks good on paper, but the other side of the coin perhaps suggests Praet was too cautious in his end product and not adventurous enough.
Winner: Anwar El Ghazi
With Aston Villa in the midst of an injury crisis up front, Dean Smith turned to habitual winger Anwar El Ghazi to lead the line for the Villans, and he duly repaid the faith shown in him by his manager with a sublime assist tonight.
It wasn’t an easy job for the 24-year-old, who was often isolated up-top and suffocated under the pressure of the Foxes’ centre-back trident, but the Dutchman held his own in the final third and made a crucial contribution.
As Leicester ramped up the pressure and dominated the early exchanges, Villa broke away midway through the first half and opened the scoring thanks to an exceptional piece of centre-forward play from El Ghazi.
The summer recruit from Lille drifted wide into his natural position before collecting the ball from Neil Taylor, manoeuvring it onto his left boot, keeping distance with Caglar Soyuncu and delivering a delectable cross to tee up Frederic Guilbert.
It was a teasing ball right into the corridor of uncertainty and exactly what his manager would have wanted from him given the centre-forward calamity currently engulfing Villa Park. The travelling fans will take some solace in knowing that El Ghazi can do a tidy false nine job during this precarious time.
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Loser: Ben Chilwell
The highly sought-after left back had a difficult game tonight and was responsible for Villa’s goal, looking all at sea as El Ghazi floated a ball to the back stick which Guilbert duly tucked home.
Under the watchful gaze of England manager Gareth Southgate, the buccaneering full-back was deployed in an unfamiliar left wing-back position as part of an experimental 3-5-2 system, but it didn’t seem to bring the best out of Chilwell, who has made a name for himself as one of the Premier League’s leading left-backs.
The formation has been used to good effect by Rodgers in previous outings, but tonight his side came up short. With Villa entering this contest without a senior centre-forward, it seemed almost counterproductive for Rodgers to persist with three at the back.
Winner: Dean Smith
Everything here simply pointed towards a comfortable Leicester City victory. The Foxes are flourishing, the Villans are currently locked in a relegation dogfight, injury problems are pervading Villa Park, culminating in Smith having no fit, senior centre forward. Not to mentioned the last time these two sides met, Leicester breezed to a 4-1 win. And yet, Smith tinkered his tactics from that capitulation last month, and it proved a masterstroke for large parts of this contest.
The 48-year-old sought to thwart the attacking threat posed by Rodgers’ formidable frontline, and in the first half his side sat deep, soaked up the pressure thrown by the hosts, and hit their opposition with a fast-break goal Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have proud of.
His tactical gambit worked a treat as Villa kept resilient at the back and prevented Rodgers’ high-flying Foxes running riot against a somewhat beleaguered defence. The introduction of Tyrone Mings, back from an injury which kept him sidelined over the festive period, was much needed.
The England international deserves a special mention as he was the defensive fulcrum tonight, marshalling the backline with extreme assuredness, demonstrating his leadership qualities and giving Vardy very little breathing room.
Loser: Douglas Luiz
Villa had done everything right up until the last 15 minutes, but an individual error cost them their cushion in this tight contest, and that came courtesy of Douglas Luiz.
The Brazilian should have known not to stutter on the ball against a side as well-drilled, intense and relentless as Leicester. Sure, legs may have started to tire, but the very best stay alert until the final whistle. Luiz did not.
Halt-time substitute Choudhury was the man to profit from Luiz’s lacklustre mannerisms, as he crunched into a timely challenge, nicked the ball to set up Vardy who unleashed Iheanacho to set this tie alight.