Claudio Ranieri does not often give in to bouts of egotism, but the unbeaten Leicester City manager can be forgiven for doing so after this latest epic saw his side climb to second in the Premier League table.
New loan signing Nathan Dyer headed the winner a minute from time after Ritchie De Laet and Jamie Vardy had cancelled out fine long-distance efforts from Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Carles Gil that saw Leicester trail 2-0.
Ranieri was derided by club legend and honorary vice-president Gary Lineker as an “uninspired” choice to succeed Nigel Pearson in the summer. But a late 17- minute salvo yesterday propelled them above Arsenal and Manchester United in the early Premier League.
“I wanted to play today,” Ranieri joked at full time. “It was an amazing match, unbelievable. My players showed a wonderful character. The fans can dream, it is right. When I was a fan I went to the stadium to dream but I have solid feet on the ground.”
Despite a typically frenzied start by the hosts, it was Villa who carved out the first goalscoring opportunity, courtesy of Robert Huth’s gift to Gil in the centre circle. He allowed the 22-year-old Spaniard to find Gabby Agbonlahor, but Scott Sinclair, marauding through at the far post, failed to apply the finish from one yard out. Leicester had been warned.
The Foxes, accustomed to making hurried starts, found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to withstand waves of pressure. Grealish, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Thursday and is yet to commit himself to either England or the Republic of Ireland on the international stage, marked his return from an ankle injury to pounce when Carlos Sanchez’s strike deflected neatly into his path on the edge of the hosts’ penalty area.
The Republic manager, Martin O’Neill, has accused his England counterpart Roy Hodgson of “putting the pressure on” as the pair continue their contest over one of the top flight’s brightest sparks. But Birmingham-born Grealish clearly was not concerned as he curled a superb effort to Kasper Schmeichel’s left in the 39th minute to cap off an impressive first half from Tim Sherwood’s side.
Leicester, though, emerged from the break re-energised. Gökhan Inler fizzed the ball wide to Jeffrey Schlupp, who galloped past both Gil and Leandro Bacuna on the left, before finding Vardy in space, but goalkeeper Brad Guzan could allow the England striker’s tidy flick to go wide.
Riyad Mahrez had the guile to plot a course through three Villa defenders before forcing Joleon Lescott into a desperate poke to clear the danger as he tried to drag his shot across Guzan and into the far post.
Ranieri had changed tactics, matching Villa’s 4-2-3-1 formation by introducing Swansea loanee Dyer in place of Shinji Okazaki, but his day was about to take a temporary turn for the worse.
In the 63rd minute Mahrez and Inler stood off Agbonlahor down the left wing, giving him time to pick out a pass, and Gil ghosted in to smash it straight into Schmeichel’s top-right corner.
The home crowd were united in outrage after N’Golo Kanté and Vardy combined to dispossess Lescott before the latter was bundled to the floor by Bacuna in the penalty area. Referee Mike Dean was unmoved amid pandemonium in the stands.
The referee’s next decision, from the resultant corner, was an easier one to judge following the introduction of goal -line technology. De Laet corkscrewed his body to latch on to Mahrez’s looping cross, to convert via the crossbar.
Leicester were finally showing the dogged determination which saw them pull off one of the greatest escapes in Premier League history last season in beating Manchester United 5-3.
With eight minutes to go Mahrez cut in between Grealish and Sanchez, offloading to Danny Drinkwater before Vardy surged past Micah Richards to bury his cross.
It was not the end of the dramatic tale, however, as Mahrez continued to wreak havoc in front of Richards and Lescott. The 24-year-old midfielder scooped a cross over the back line and onto the head of Dyer, who risked serious injury to guide it past Guzan and into an empty net.
“I’m devastated by the way it has panned out today,” Sherwood said afterwards. “When you are at this level, in total control, to then throw it away... I’m lost for words.”Reuse content