Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho’s equaliser gave Leicester City a deserved draw to leave the Carabao Cup semi-final against Aston Villa delicately poised after an entertaining encounter at the King Power Stadium.
Substitute Iheanacho finished emphatically from Jamie Vardy’s pass with 16 minutes left to give The Foxes the reward their incessant second-half pressure merited to set up a tense second leg at Villa Park.
Villa, struggling with injuries after goalkeeper Tom Heaton and striker Wesley were ruled out for the season, defended with organisation and resilience to protect the lead given to them after 28 minutes when Frederic Guilbert stole in at the far post to meet Anwar El Ghazi’s cross.
Ezri Konsa’s header also struck the bar for Villa but Leicester applied most of the pressure with keeper Orjan Nyland saving twice from James Maddison and Vardy, who also shot just wide late on, before he was beaten by Iheanacho’s powerful strike from 12 yards.
The second leg at Villa Park takes place on Tuesday, 28 January.
England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands at The King Power Stadium to cast his eye over several players as he finalises his Euro 2020 plans.
Villa defender Tyrone Mings and Leicester pair James Maddison and Ben Chilwell have already won full caps – so Southgate will have been paying particular attention to Jack Grealish, who has been a key figure for Dean Smith’s side this season.
Grealish is yet to make the breakthrough to full England status and his midfield battle with Maddison, who is yet to fully convince Southgate, was an intriguing sub-plot to this semi-final.
And the Villa captain did not disappoint, surely pressing his claims for inclusion in England’s squad and the opportunity to put himself in contention for this summer’s Euros.
Villa spent much of the game on the back foot but Grealish was composed and strong on the ball when he got the chance, always looking for the chance to play the decisive pass on the rare occasions they were able to build pressure.
Maddison is currently ahead of Grealish in Southgate’s pecking order, but this classy display from the 24-year-old will have given Southgate food for thought as Villa set up a platform to give themselves a real chance of reaching the EFL Cup Final against either Manchester City or Manchester United.
Leicester City were not quite at their fluent best that has taken them into second place in the Premier League, forcing their way between runaway leaders Liverpool and reigning champions Manchester City.
And yet, despite this, the Foxes showed real determination and patience to maintain the pressure until marksman Vardy turned creator with an astute pass that released Iheanacho for his late leveller.
There were occasions when the home crowd, largely supportive, became impatient as Leicester probed but they stayed true to the principles of manager Brendan Rodgers and no-one apart from Villa could complain about their equaliser.
Rodgers would have wanted victory from this home leg but he looked satisfied at the final whistle, clearly believing this is a result Leicester City can work with at Villa Park, where their pace and power on the break – spearheaded by Vardy – may be an even bigger weapon than it was here, as it was in their recent 4-1 league victory.