It was a case of fireworks both on and off the pitch for Leicester City. Pyrotechnics were let off pre-match to celebrate our chairman’s birthday and it was explosive on the pitch too as the Foxes made it five wins in a row. It’s all coming up roses for new manager, Craig Shakespeare, currently.
Even sudden downpours couldn’t dampen Leicester spirits, the home side looking confident and comfortable for the most part, while Stoke City struggled to threaten. We looked more in tune with ourselves, back to how we approached games last season and it was another brilliant team effort. With Wes Morgan still missing, Kasper Schmeichel was once more entrusted as Captain, as was Yohan Benalouane to cover him, and Demarai Gray replaced a sick Marc Albrighton. There were few players who didn’t look good today.
Gray is a player who seems to polarise Leicester fans, and I wonder if some who still had the jury out, will be more convinced having watched him for almost the full ninety minutes today. He was certainly exciting and clearly made the opposition uncomfortable. His brisk, sharp runs forward were causing issues, ones that Ryan Shawcross saw the solution to be full on tackling him off the ball at high speed to stop him. From our view, it looked pretty horrific, so it was a surprise to all that the referee only brandished a yellow card. It was an important game for Gray though. A chance to showcase why he should be involved more, one that he took on with vigour too. Yes, there’s still room for improvement to some aspects of his game, he’s young. His corners were disappointing (that said, this has been a theme for us for as long as I can remember) and there were still a couple of times where he took a shot rather than pass to a waiting team-mate, but generally, I was impressed with his contributions. Those who have been unhappy previously with his defensive contributions couldn’t have had such complaints today and he made some good runs or passes.
His talent is clear though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if bigger clubs were looking at him, though I do feel we can hold on to him as long as can prove that he will feature more. He should keep getting better and we could benefit from that blistering pace and his creativity. Today marked one of his strongest performances in a Leicester shirt and he looked at home on that left wing, particularly in the first half where virtually everything he did looked dangerous. With the run of games we have coming up, there’s no reason to think that he won’t get more game time either. At times, he overlapped or swapped sides with Riyad Mahrez and there’s potential for that partnership to keep growing too.
The only player who probably came out of today with even more praise was Wilfred Ndidi. I have a hard time remembering that he is just twenty because of the way he plays. His intelligence and ability to read the game are already superb and, like Gray, should only keep getting better. It’s frustrating to see him constantly compared to N’Golo Kante. Yes, he’s filled the void for us left by Kante, but he’s already proved he is his own man. His game is slightly different to Kante’s but no less effective. Possibly the biggest difference he displays is his ability to score some incredible goals. What better way to score your first Premier League goal than with a rocket of a hit? It was power and precision and deserving of the crowd celebrations that followed.
Nothing appears to be too difficult for Ndidi and he just looks so composed and so confident at all times. He’s equally apt at winning a header from an opposition corner to clear danger as he is making a run forward and picking out a great pass. He’s got a healthy hunger for winning the ball back, a well timed tackle and pace to boot. It’s so easy to forget then, that this is a player who’s been in the squad and at the club for less than four months. You certainly wouldn’t be able to tell from watching him and I struggle to recall a player who’s hit the ground running as effortlessly as he has for us. So many of the talking points for Leicester this season have been about signings and the money spent on them, I don’t think anybody will disagree that Ndidi is head and shoulders above the best, and worth every single penny.
Leicester could have been more than just one goal up from the first half, had it not have been for Lee Grant, who flummoxed the Foxes on a few occasions. We had a Huth chance cleared off the line, a flying Mahrez shot that had to be saved and even a more ambitious overhead kick from Shinji Okazaki, who chipped in fantastically today for the side. Our Algerian winger had to be marked by groups of Stoke players, meaning he was causing a few problems and he was unlucky not to finish the game with at least one goal. We were looking dangerous on the attack again and it was a joint effort. It was pleasing to keep that focus moving into the second half and shut Stoke out of it with an early goal. It was a straight-forward smash and score kind of goal for Jamie Vardy, who was in full pest mode again today and it helps improve his tally for the season again.
Both goals came courtesy of an unlikely source; Danny Simpson assisting both. The right-back tends to fly under the radar for the Foxes, not even valued as much by our own fans as he could be. Last season he was part of a very solid back-line but was limited in getting forward as that was all Mahrez’s domain. He, like much of the squad, struggled a little at the start of the season but his own revival started before the team’s. For example, his performance away at Sevilla was impressive and he might have stood out had Jamie Vardy’s goal not grabbed most of the headlines. He’s not a player who often gets his name on the assist list. In notching two today, the statistics suggest that it’s been ten years since his last in the Premier League, so you’d be forgiven for not guessing it was him.
While it’s brilliant to have him contribute to this part of our game, he deserves just as much praise for how he went about his actual job, defensively, too. Again, he’s pretty solid and reliable, so tends not to come up in conversation for players who excelled. Yes, Stoke didn’t present us with too many threats but when we did need him, he won almost every header and was great in covering Robert Huth when the latter went up for set pieces. The clean sheet is just as much his reward as getting the assists. He’s a calm influence in the back-line, something that will be more useful while we’re without Morgan still. The only slight danger is that he, along with Huth, is on nine yellow cards, just one away from suspension. As was Christian Fuchs, who’ll now serve a one-match suspension, picking up his tenth today.
We’re light in cover still defensively and April is a month of many fixtures, some huge games thrown in there. We’ll need our full squad as fit as possible and if we can continue this rich vein of form, we can still sneak into the top half of the Premier League table. That, along with how we’ve already done in the Champions League, would make it a pleasing end to the season.