So many supporters have been dually gallant over this disappointing defeat; suggesting that City, after such a good run, are entitled to a bad day, while also accepting that Leicester were effective and even impressive opponents. All true.
It wasn’t a painful loss, just one that made a few salient points about the squad and brought out the philosophical side of the more robust supporter. Too much of what the Tigers had made good in recent weeks was absent. There was little direction, leadership, purpose, optimism and, in the odd case, fitness. Quite early on it seemed as though City were just going to have to put it down to a human setback and move on. From about the 20 minute mark onwards, by which time Leicester were leading, it was blindingly obvious to all that we wouldn’t score.
Nigel Pearson brought back a fit-again Anthony Gerrard to the defence and moved Paul McShane back to the bench but otherwise the outfield was unchanged. Brad Guzan, the world’s oldest twentysomething (pushed hard by one of the owners of this website), took his place in goal. New signing Aaron Mclean, with a small ‘l’, was on the bench. Count up to 11 with Guzan; Rosenior, Zayatte, Gerrard, Dawson; Ashbee, Harper, Koren, Devitt; Stewart, Simpson.
Instantly, Leicester took command and, for the most part, never really let it go again. Darius Vassell, rescued by his former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson from a tough spell in Turkish football, curled an early shot just wide after initially being stopped by Gerrard but getting a second bite.
Andy King then drilled a vigorous shot low at City’s goal from Lloyd Dyer’s intelligent tee-up but it was too close to Guzan, who held with comfort. Early pressure from Leicester, and soon it would be telling.
Guzan might have still been regathering his thoughts after dismally misjudging a looping header from King that needed Andy Dawson, glued to the goalline, to head away, but even a focussed keeper would have struggled to stop Vassell’s sumptuous volley, swivelling his right foot on to a tidy Richie Wellens chip and finding the net via a touch of the bar. It was a great goal; it was also deserved and inevitable.
Dawson aimed a free kick marginally wide as City tried to respond but there was just a feeling of impotence through the whole team. Pearson recognised a tactical blunder and tried to remedy it admirably early, giving Mclean a longer debut than he might have expected by switching to a 4-3-3 and hauling off the totally shallow Jamie Devitt. Some questioned whether this would dent the youngster’s confidence but, well, sometimes you have to be cruel to create a man. He wasn’t up to it and a change was needed.
In the little time left before the interval, City forced two corners but didn’t test any resolve of the opposition with either, and Ian Ashbee volleyed the second clearance a long way wide. Leicester should have been further ahead at the whistle when Dyer was played through hopelessly onside but he had little understanding of the freedom City had afforded him, and rushed his shot. Guzan, who should have had no chance, ended up with simple catching practice.
Cameron Stewart, quickly becoming a marked man, managed one scintillating run down the left but upon reaching the byline had little or no options and so, with room diminishing, he went for a near-post shot in the hope, at most, of winning a corner. There should have been a striker or midfielder breaking landspeed records to get there and help. There weren’t.
James Harper swiped over a shot from Dawson’s half-cleared set-piece, while Paul Gallagher tried two swervers in quick succession that both missed the target. Blow the bloody whistle.
Half time, lots of mumbling. Jimmy Bullard was sent out in kit early for a proper warm-up, so one assumed that the anonymous Robert Koren or the bypassed Harper would be getting the crook, but it was Ashbee who was withdrawn. Lest we forget that Pearson is the first manager prepared to haul off or drop the skipper if he felt he was not doing his bit.
For all Ashbee’s first half ineffectiveness, we looked even worse without him, and with Bullard. It’s starting to get on people’s wick now just how little Bullard seems prepared to be a team presence, hating the lack of luxurious space that Premier League football gives him. He’s good, he’s a danger, and so Championship players are around him like paparazzi round a princess the moment a ball heads his way. His passing was principally sideways, he pulled out of tackles. His confidence, or his nerve, or his desire, or all three, are severely questionable. But this is the level he’s at, and so a player of his quality needs to find a way to deal with it.
Gallagher flashed a low drive inches wide after excellent work from Vassell and Dyer, and the Tigers were abject. The game reached the hour point with ample passes going astray, long balls being aimed without a viable target and too many players thinking that Bullard was the easy and obvious option. Sadly, many of those players were wearing blue shirts, and yet the heavy attention paid Bullard’s way didn’t stop his unimaginative team-mates still using him as the default option.
Kamil Zayatte, again playing as if his perineum was on fire, was then floored by an accidental clash of heads. Crucially, the referee didn’t stop the game and seconds later, Liam Rosenior was crazily late as he challenged Greg Cunningham, who was first to the ball by some distance. Rosenior had no excuse; he was so late in arriving he would have had time to withdraw his tackling foot as Cunningham prepared to scamper away, but didn’t. Cunningham has a broken leg now and Rosenior a three-match ban after a straight red card.
McShane was immediately summoned and the pallid Jay Simpson was taken off. Zayatte, meanwhile, needed lengthy treatment while the majority of players gathered around the stricken Cunningham. It would later prompt a very long period of injury time, but even the eventual eight minutes signalled were of no use to City.
In that last half hour, McShane put both ball and keeper into the net as he challenged a Bullard corner and was predictably penalised, while Koren had one shot that Chris Weale held after initially appearing unsighted. Leicester had been playing as if blessed with an extra man even before Rosenior made that a fact, and their sureness of foot, fitness and defensive strength made them genuinely a side to appreciate.
Maybe it was one game too many for some, but there is still the trip to Portsmouth to come before the majority of the nation goes back to work and the first team can ponder a weekend off while the stiffs get an FA Cup run-out. What this game, and the immediacy of the next fixture, shows us blatantly is that our squad needs the reinforcements that January and a new-found wealth is starting to bring, and that some players are simply not up to more than one game a week any more.