Leicester rely on heart to counter international art
COCA-COLA CUP FINAL: Leicester City v Middlesbrough, tomorrow, Wembley, 3pm
Saturday 05 April 1997
It is an unexpected final. Both sides have been more pre-occupied with the battle against relegation than the chase for honours. Unlike Middlesbrough, Leicester are almost secure, though Boro look as if they may now pull themselves clear.
Their recent run of form has confirmed them as favourites and increased the likelihood of a decent match. It could be tight but the contrast in styles should make for interesting, if not necessarily thrilling watching. The match may turn on how Leicester deal with Juninho. He toyed with them in the first half of their recent League clash, scoring and creating a goal for Mikkel Beck as Boro went 3-0 up. Then Leicester detailed Simon Grayson to follow him and his influence diminished. Will City man-mark tomorrow? To do so would risk disrupting the shape of their own side.
While the spotlight will be on Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, the human stories lie elsewhere. Last year Clayton Blackmore played only five Premiership matches, this season he was sent on loan to Bristol City. Then Boro's injury crisis gave him a chance which he has seized so well he has even revived his international career.
Leicester's human tales are tinged with sadness. Garry Parker may not even play - his eight-week-old daughter, born five months premature, is on a life support machine and he could withdraw as late as an hour before kick-off. A mobile phone sits in the dug-out during matches in case her condition suddenly deteriorates. Yet his form in the recent cup matches has been exceptional.
Grayson's final is also bittersweet. His mother Carol suffers from multiple sclerosis and she, and the family, have had to make great efforts to be at Wembley tomorrow.
More cheering are the stories of Neil Lennon, Jamie Lawrence and Steve Claridge. Claridge, whose battle with a gambling addition is vividly detailed in his recent book, is enjoying the best form of his career at the age of 30. Lawrence has built a career in the game after serving four years for armed robbery - nor has he forgotten, among his guests tomorrow are some of his former prison warders. Lennon has recovered from an operation on his spine that forced him to wear a plaster corset for three months to protect 16 metal staples which held together a foot-long incision in his back.
From such backgrounds come the character which has made Leicester so hard to beat - two goals conceded in 11 hours of Coca-Cola Cup football. Now they hope to become the first Leicester team to win a Wembley final - their previous League Cup success was in the days of two-legged finals. Martin O'Neill is likely to play Grayson, rather than Lawrence, at right wing-back to counter Juninho with Pontus Kamark preferred to Mike Whitlow on the left if fit.
Middlesbrough have only been to Wembley once, losing a Zenith Data Systems final in 1990. Their injury doubt is Robbie Mustoe. If he fails a test on his thigh Neil Cox is expected to come in at full-back with Blackmore switching to midfield.
Boro's quality and form should win them the first major trophy in their 121-year history, but only if they can match Leicester's heart. If not Leicester have, in Emile Heskey, their own matchwinner.
LEICESTER CITY (3-5-2): Keller; Prior, Walsh, Watts; Grayson, Izzet, Parker, Lennon, Kamark; Claridge, Heskey.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Fleming, Festa, Pearson, Blackmore; Hignett, Emerson, Mustoe (or Cox), Juninho; Ravanelli, Beck.
ROUTE TO THE FINAL
LEICESTER CITY MIDDLESBROUGH
Scarborough (A) 2-0 Second round, first leg Hereford (H) 7-0
(Izzet, Lawrence) (Ravanelli 4 (1 pen), Emerson, Branco, Fleming)
Scarborough (H) 2-1 Second round, second leg Hereford (A) 3-0
(Lawrence, Parker pen) (Beck, Stamp, Branco)
York (A) 2-0 Third round Huddersfield (H) 5-1
(Lennon, Grayson) (Juninho, Emerson, Ravanelli 2, Beck)
Man United (H) 2-0 Fourth round Newcastle (H) 3-1
(Claridge, Heskey) (Whyte, Beck, Ravanelli)
Ipswich (A) 1-0 Fifth round Liverpool (H) 2-1
(Robins) (Hignett, Vickers)
Wimbledon (H) 0-0 Semi-final, first leg Stockport (A) 2-0
Wimbledon (A) 1-1* Semi-final, second leg Stockport (H) 0-1
(Grayson) (*won on away goals)
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