It’s certainly the case that for the fans, it’s all eyes on Atletico; understandably so too, it’s arguably the biggest occasion in the club’s history. A 4-2 away loss isn’t ideal preparation but it’s nothing to call panic stations over either.
The defensive woes started immediately, a throwback to how hopeless we looked in the earlier months of the season. Everton capitalised quickly and were ahead within a minute, the worst possible start for our makeshift defence.
It’s our own fault, our recruitment for defenders was virtually non-existent, meaning with Wes Morgan injured, Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson in need of a rest, we’re short on options for cover. So much so that we have just one option at left-back, young Ben Chilwell, and no true right-back cover, Daniel Amartey drafted in there instead. Robert Huth ideally wouldn’t play three full games in a week, but again, we aren’t blessed with much choice, as to remove him as well, would take out key experience.
We were caught out quickly and far too easily as well. It’s a shame that having had such a good few games, Yohan Benalouane struggled to recapture the same form today, partly at fault for the opening game and not really improving thereafter.
He wasn’t the only one, as a unit we looked vulnerable throughout and this was only highlighted more in the home team’s set plays. Defending set pieces has been an issue before, and continues to be. The marking at several corners was non-existent.
Our general approach to dealing with the threat of Romelu Lukaku left a lot to be desired. He’s the Premier League’s top scorer and we barely won a single header against him. We failed to track him at corners and generally didn’t know what to do with him. It didn’t help that he quickly targeted our weaker left flank in the first half either. Kasper Schmeichel, Captain again, was left enraged by both Phil Jagielka, and Lukaku’s goals where embarrassingly, few players even jumped for the incoming corner.
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Yes, there was an element of fast recovery, we were level and 2-1 up within the ten minute mark, so we displayed an element of fight, but we just refused to make it easy for ourselves. I was happy with our attacking presence early on, we looked dangerous on the break even with our minimal possession.
Our equaliser was incredibly well worked, a ball won back just outside of our own box and sent on to Demarai Gray, left free to charge down on goal. He had Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani as options, but Vardy cleverly drew several defenders to the left of the goal, freeing up Slimani who comfortably bagged his goal. It was probably the best play we managed all game and certainly the highlight for the England striker who was quiet by his standards.
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Ask Marc Albrighton and he’ll tell you his impressive free-kick was deliberate, with the confidence he’s currently operating under, it wouldn’t surprise you. He deserved it too. Just remember for a moment that we signed Albrighton on a free transfer.
The winger, arguably in the form of his life right now, cost us nothing despite having some of the best statistics for creating chances out there. That’s just one of many reasons I’ve never been able to understand why he has critics within our fan base. This game was another perfect example of what he brings, in what had already been a great week for him.
Having utterly changed the game against Sunderland, he popped up with a brilliant goal and created the move that led to our equaliser. He was unlucky with other opportunities that our forwards couldn’t quite convert or latch onto.
Unfortunately he was probably our most effective of the midfield four too, and the absence in there of Wilfred Ndidi was felt even more than expected. We’ll cross fingers, toes and everything else that his minor injury concern is just that, as we’ll be counting on him in Madrid.
Taking his place today was Andy King, certainly not the same kind of player and it showed. I wonder if Craig Shakespeare will rue Ndidi’s slight niggle as otherwise he’d have been able to rest Danny Drinkwater, who’s having a tough couple of weeks, certainly not at his best. King could then have replaced him which is more of a like for like. Of course, we could have played Amartey there had we got a suitable replacement for the right-back spot too.
While I think we all realise how crucial Ndidi has been since arriving, nothing highlighted his talents more than him not playing. We lacked that player who’s always pressing to win the ball back, who pops up defensively and drives forward on the attack.
In the space of just three months he’s become possibly the first or second name on the team sheet, he’s that important. You’d worry about putting that level of pressure on such a young player’s shoulders but with his attitude and performances, it’s easy to forget he’s just twenty. Without him our midfield was generally absent, which certainly didn’t support our struggling defence or our forwards. Too often, notably in the second half, Slimani got drawn near the halfway line to try and get the ball or start a move.
It wasn’t just the midfielder we missed, I wondered what sort of difference Shinji Okazaki would have been able to have on the game. Yes, he struggled against Sunderland, and yes, he can be found on the floor too often, but he does a good job of joining up our midfield and forward line, which with the absence of Ndidi, might have helped. It also felt like we did miss the reliable, steady ship of Simpson too, who’s really stepped up within the last month and shown his worth.
Of course there’s arguments in favour of, and against, this approach from Leicester. In resting some players, we approach Wednesday night’s Champions League quarter-final with fresh legs and much needed energy, but it also put our winning momentum at risk and now means we go in after a loss. It’s an entirely different ask for the Foxes though, and if they do pull off a result, nobody will even dwell on this loss.