A few weeks on from the first leg at the King Power Stadium, and it’s fair to say Villa have had an eventful run of games since gaining that admirable, and a little unexpected, draw at high flying Leicester. We followed up that battling performance with an horrific capitualtion against reigning champions Manchester City, but since then we’ve licked our wounds and have proceeded to get 4 much needed points from our last two games.
After our dramatic stoppage time defeat of Watford last Tuesday, we’re back out of the relegation zone, in possession of a new striker and feeling like we’ve restored some pride and belief after the crushing low of Man City. It’s a timely turnaround too, with Leicester due to arrive for another huge night under the Villa Park lights.
The League Cup has been a good competition for us over the years – having won it 5 times – and there have been quite a few memorable Villa Park performances to draw inspiration from, including some gripping semi-finals. Beating Tranmere Rovers on penalties in one of the most dramatic semi-finals I can recall back in 1994 or the bonkers 6-4 victory over Blackburn back in 2010 come to mind. It’s a competition we seem to enjoy by and large and it is still the last major trophy we lifted when we beat Leeds back in 1996.
That last fact feels like something that needs to change, and booking our third trip to Wembley in as many seasons is what we will need to focus on if we want to rectify that recent history. Of course, that’s no easy task, Leicester are formidable opponents this season, as they emphatically showcased on their last visit to Villa Park when they decimated us 4-1.
We were awful in that match, but since then we’ve undergone some necessary changes. We’ve shifted formations, brought in new faces and seen the return of key figures like Tyrone Mings (who went off injured at 1-0 in that same defeat). We showed what we could do in that first leg in frustrating Leicester and making it hard for them with a more solid formation, better organisation and hard work. Nevertheless, Brendan Rodgers and Leicester City have shown themselves to be flexible this season and are capable of springing some tactical surprises to alter a game so we can certainly expect a different kind of game to that first leg. We may well need to show an in-game tactical flexibility that we haven’t always shown this season if we want to come out of this with the win.
The news that Jamie Vardy will likely be fit enough to at least feature in some capacity is of course, a concern, and whilst he has been off the scoring charts for a few appearances now, keeping him quiet – if he is to feature – is still going to be a difficult task. That isn’t to disregard the threats posed by the replacements such as Ayoze Pérez or Kelechi Iheanacho (scorer in the first leg) of course. We’ll be aware that they’re very capable of causing us lots of problems too.
But we also possess a new dimension of our own in new signing Mbwana Samatta and his debut presence could prove decisive tonight. His goalscoring pedigree seems impressive and having an actal striker as a focal point for our attacking game is going to make a big difference to how we play compared to the past month’s fixtures. Having that presence up front to occupy their centre backs and cause problems trying to pull them out of shape is going to be key. It’s quite a game for him to make his debut but he’d achieve instant cult hero status if he hits the ground running and can make the impact we hope he can.
The 4-1 defeat in December is going to be a worrying presence in our collective minds as an all too recent sign of what Leicester are capable of, but they have been on something of a mini wobble themselves since the turn of the New Year, so there’s doubts we can maybe exacerbate in them too.
Nevertheless, they will be equally focused on winning this as we will be you would imagine, and they have previous with us in this competition, having beaten us at this stage back in 2000 when Martin O’Neill led them past us and on to victory in the final.
We’ll likely employ a similar formation to that which we used so effectively in the first leg, with the option being a more attacking 3-5-2, with someone either El Ghazi or Grealish just off Samatta forming the attacking partnership. We’re the home team after all and the onus is on us to attack this game, but we’ll need to continue to be solid against Leicester’s quick counter attacking ability, we can’t afford to be too gung ho.
I imagine this will be a pretty tense game, and I know it will be from the stands. But it’s a perfect opportunity to get the ground rocking and we saw in those final 30 minutes against Watford what a rocking Villa Park can achieve in the players’ mentality and performance levels. This is a huge opportunity for us to show how good we can be and ultimately the opportunity of getting to a final and competing for silverware is what we’re in the game for.
If I had to predict the result, I’ll go for 2-1 Villa, I’m not sure we can keep a clean sheet, but it’s a cup semi-final and I’m going to be as optimistic as I can be and believe we can win and get back to Wembley again.
By Jamie Yapp