For the second time in three days Manchester City could savour the result in a Leicester game. A title race that threatened to go down to the tape could now have a runaway favourite. Liverpool’s defeat, only their second in the league since March, means they might be 12 points behind Pep Guardiola’s team by the time they play again.
And yet, as the euphoric scenes at the final whistle showed, the real winners were Leicester. In a year when they belatedly lifted the FA Cup for the first time, this will not be their most famous victory. Yet the lap of honour illustrated that 2021 concluded with an extraordinary triumph.
A side short of players and time to prepare, fresh from a hammering and minus a specialist centre-back on the pitch nonetheless produced a colossal collective effort. Liverpool were nullified by a mass of bodies in the box and, if it took a remarkable goalkeeping performance to deny them, perhaps that was fitting, too. FA Cup glory came courtesy of Kasper Schmeichel’s saves and so did Leicester’s finest result of this season.
A team without a point against sides in the top six emerged with three. A side who had sieved six goals two days earlier and whose only Premier League clean sheets were against Wolves and Newcastle became the first defence since Real Madrid in April to stop Liverpool from scoring.
They prevailed in adversity. “It’s an absolutely heroic performance,” said Brendan Rodgers. “It’s an amazing result for us against one of the best teams in the world. To play Manchester City and Liverpool within 48 hours…” He had called the schedule “ridiculous”. Perhaps Leicester went from the ridiculous to the sublime, from losing 6-3 to City to beating his former club and his Anfield successor, Jürgen Klopp. On this occasion, the Northern Irishman was the managerial alchemist. He sent Ademola Lookman on and two minutes later the former Everton winger condemned Liverpool to defeat.
Yet it followed the second of two turning points, of the sort of chances Liverpool’s front three habitually take. Sadio Mané ought to have ended his nine-game drought. When Diogo Jota provided a slide-rule pass, he angled his run from outside to in, but blazed a shot over the bar.
Perhaps an earlier miss was still more surprising. Mohamed Salah had not failed to convert a Premier League penalty since 2017. Then Schmeichel joined a select band with Huddersfield’s Jonas Lössl to deny him. He eschewed studying Salah’s past spot-kicks, went with his gut feeling and guessed right. It was one of three chances in swift succession: the Leicester captain parried the penalty back to the Egyptian, who looped a header against the bar and then could not connect cleanly with his third attempt.
Arguably it was not even Schmeichel’s best save from Salah: he had less time to react to a rising close-range effort but he brilliantly tipped it over the bar. His reflexes were apparent, too, when he prevented Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross from going in and when it would have been easy to be distracted by the jumping Jordan Henderson. When he repelled a late shot from Virgil van Dijk at his near post, a clean sheet was assured.
It was aided by a defence anchored by a midfielder. With three full-backs sidelined and Leicester’s three main centre-backs injured, Rodgers delivered a vote of no confidence in Jannik Vestergaard by benching the Danish defender. But he was vindicated, albeit after an early alarm.
Wilfred Ndidi’s lone mistake came after a quarter of an hour, stretching and stretching until he fouled Salah for the third penalty Leicester conceded in as many days. Alongside him Daniel Amartey was outstanding, a bastion of reliability. “The two centre-halves were amazing,” Rodgers said. In front of them his diamond midfield congested the centre of the pitch. If that entailed ceding the flanks to Liverpool, they missed the dynamism of the suspended Andy Robertson as his deputy, Kostas Tsimikas, failed to supply the final ball. With Mané again below par, they looked lopsided, reliant on the right-sided trio of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the influential Henderson and Salah. The 20-year-old Luke Thomas impressed against Salah. “Outstanding,” his manager added. And while Liverpool amassed 67 touches in the Leicester box, they lacked rhythm and met a wall of blue shirts. “We had to be resilient and defend for our lives at times,” said Rodgers.
Meanwhile Leicester had a counter-attacking threat, much of it revolving around Jamie Vardy. Van Dijk and Joël Matip each had to intervene to stop the veteran from scoring. When Vardy supplied James Maddison, Alexander-Arnold hacked the midfielder’s shot off the line. There was no such rescue act for Liverpool when Leicester opened them up again. Lookman collected the ball on the halfway line, exchanging passes with Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and racing forward to beat Alisson.
A product of Leicester’s academy got his first Premier League assist to alter the title race. A team who seemed ripe for another thrashing instead triumphed against the odds. “We knew that the headlines were probably already written,” Rodgers said. “But you write your own story in football.” And this was an improbable tale.