Leicester reached the FA Cup final for the first time since 1969 thanks to a goal by their man of the moment, Kelechi Iheanacho..
The Nigerian, already the highest scoring African in the tournament’s history, continued his glowing recent form by striking in the second half to set up a showdown with Chelsea.
This was not Leicester’s most fluent performance under Brendan Rodgers but they were undoubtedly the better team and the way they eked out the result answered some questions about their ability to get the job done under pressure. Now Rodgers and his team will have an opportunity to lift the FA Cup for the first time in their club’s history.
As well as a sporting contest, this was a social and scientific experiment. Four thousand fans were permitted into Wembley for the first time in over a year as the match was chosen as a pilot event to help pave a way back to full stadiums. The masked spectators, all local residents or key workers sprinkled around the lowest tier, had to undergo Covid-19 tests and observe a variety safety procedures.
The UK government hopes the event will prove informative as it tries to meet its commitment to allow stadiums to be filled to at least 25 per cent of their capacity for this summer’s European Championships, and to let 22,000 fans attend the FA Cup final.
The earliest, unscientific finding was that the presence of excited, real-life humans gladdened the heart and made the whole show matter more. Even before kick-off, when the crowd applauded the players as they took a knee, the sound of actual people served a reminder of the inadequacies of canned impostors.
A problem with people, though, is that they can suffer from jitters. Players on both sides seemed edgy from the start here. Mislaid passes and general hesitancy made for a stodgy, sloppy first period. How different that might have been if Ayoze Pérez had been able to score in the fifth minute after a beautiful pass by Youri Tielemans, but instead the Spaniard steered a shot over the bar from the left-hand side of the box.
Pérez, back in the squad after being dropped last week for hosting an illicit party, was selected ahead of one of his house guests, James Maddison. That was justified on the basis of recent form but Pérez did not make much of an impact.
Southampton were cautious, working hard to deny passing options in the opposing half. They did not threaten until Moussa Djenepo played a raking pass from deep over the top for Danny Ings to chase, but Kasper Schmeichel scooted out of his area to clear.
Jamie Vardy and Iheanacho, such a dangerous duo in recent weeks, were not able to combine until the 23rd minute. Under pressure from Jannik Vestergaard, Vardy scuffed his shot from 20 yards. The striker might have had a better chance three minutes later but Pérez botched a simple pass.
Then, at the other end, Ings scurried to the edge of the area with the ball at his feet but delayed his shot, allowing Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira to dispossess him. There was no shortage of effort from the players but too many of them lacked their usual sharpness.
Vardy, who came into the game having scored just one goal since Christmas, was presented with a chance to demonstrate his power in the 33rd minute but, after leaving Jan Bednarek lumbering in his wake, he ran on to another cute pass by Tielemans but chipped his shot over the bar from seven yards. Leicester caused more panic in the Southampton box just before half-time with a series of corners, as both Ndidi and Vardy narrowly missed the target with headers. But, on balance, the blank scoresheet at the interval was an accurate reflection of a scruffy first period.
Leicester summoned more intensity in the second period and started poking more holes in the opposing defence. They forced the breakthrough in the 55th minute, when Vardy demonstrated yet again why he is so valuable even when not scoring. The 34-year-old turned nimbly past Bednarek on the left wing and then flew forward before looking up and picking out his trusty partner. Iheanacho, having cleverly eluded his marker, misdirected his first-time shot but it rebounded back to him off Vestergaard, and the striker coolly stroked his follow-up effort into the net from eight yards.
Now Southampton had to take more risks as they attacked. They got Leicester flustered and thought they should have been given a penalty when Djenepo’s cross hit the arm of Wesley Fofana but the referee disagreed. Then Jonny Evans blocked a shot by Che Adams before Ibrahima Diallo boomed a shot over from 25 yards. The Frenchman went much closer with an elegant attempt moments later, his volley from the edge of the area whizzing just inches over.
Mostly, however, Leicester dealt comfortably with Southampton’s attacks. Maddison could have given them real peace of mind shortly after replacing Pérez but he lifted a shot over the bar from 20 yards after smart work by Iheanacho. Three minutes later Maddison tried to atone from even farther out but his well-struck shot hurtled wide. It did not matter, as Leicester held off their opponents with an authority that will encourage them for a potentially glorious finale to their season. –
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