On the touchline, Brendan Rodgers raised both arms skywards: partly in triumph, and partly because he wanted everybody to know who deserved the credit for all this. James Maddison had just put the visitors 3-1 up after a delightful move and in the space of just 25 minutes Leicester had converted a potential embarrassment into a warming comeback victory that earned them a fifth-round tie against Brighton.
Whatever Rodgers imparted to his team at half-time, it certainly seemed to work. Inspired by the brilliant Maddison, Leicester moved effortlessly through the gears after the break, cancelling out Mads Bech Sørensen’s early goal and quickly wrapping up the tie thereafter. There remain plenty of areas for Leicester to work on, not least the issue of how to unlock well-organised defences without the injured Jamie Vardy. But in the second half at least, they offered a few possible solutions.
Fittingly, Maddison was at the heart of most of what Leicester did well going forward. It was his snaking, duplicitous run in the 46th minute that helped draw Leicester level, and as his side grew into the game so did he: linking play, gilding moves, occasionally even leading the line. Harvey Barnes was much improved after the break and on the right wing Cengiz Under reminded us why Rodgers rates the young Turkey international so highly.
It was a bitterly cold day, with a light dusting of snow on the pitch making the roll of the ball a little unpredictable but, nevertheless, both teams had come to play. Brentford’s strong record in cup competitions has largely vindicated Thomas Frank’s rotation strategy and here again he was able to make six changes without a significant drop in quality or cohesion. Tariqe Fosu looked sharp on the left wing, while the 17-year-old left-back Fin Stevens settled well after a nervy start.
Leicester have such a strong squad that even a team bearing eight changes looked ominous on paper. But as they struggled to overturn Sørensen’s early goal, perhaps they needed a little more from their big-ticket players. Ayoze Pérez struggled in a false 9 role, too often dropping back into Maddison’s space. Barnes had one good early shot cleared off the line but offered little for the rest of the half.
Meanwhile, at the back a team known for their set-piece efficiency were feasting on the opportunities on offer from a team with one of the worst set-piece records in the Premier League. Sørensen’s opener, an opportunistic toe-poke after Leicester had failed to clear a corner, was just the first: Danny Ward would later be forced into good saves from Fosu and Saman Ghoddos.
Yet having defended their lead so impressively until the break, Brentford would surrender it almost as soon as the second half began. Soyuncu won the ball high from Ghoddos, setting Maddison clear: squirming past two players before putting the ball on the plate for Under with a beautiful no-look heel pass. It was the first real moment of class from either side and perhaps the moment Brentford realised Leicester were about to take the game to a level they could not touch.
With Pérez taking up a more withdrawn role on the left side and Barnes and Under pushing wide to stretch the pitch, Maddison and Youri Tielemans now had far more space to play with. And, sure enough, Leicester were soon ahead, Tielemans scoring a penalty after Fosu’s soft foul on him. Shortly after Rodgers brought on Timothy Castagne and Wilfred Ndidi to lock down the game, Maddison did it for him: bundling home after a delicious through ball from Under to Barnes.
Brentford could easily have subsided after that; instead, a young side dug in their heels and might have claimed a late consolation through the substitute Aaron Pressley. As for Leicester, they march into the last 16, and for all their impressive progress in the Premier League, this competition represents a genuine opportunity to cap their season with a trophy.