Leicester tighten grip on top-four spot as Aston Villa miss injured Jack Grealish

Harvey Barnes (right) celebrates with his Leicester teammate Youri Tielemans after scoring in the Premier League win against Aston Villa.
Harvey Barnes (right) celebrates with his Leicester teammate Youri Tielemans after scoring in the Premier League win against Aston Villa. Photograph: Tim Keeton/AP
Harvey Barnes (right) celebrates with his Leicester teammate Youri Tielemans after scoring in the Premier League win against Aston Villa. Photograph: Tim Keeton/AP
at Villa Park

Last modified on Sun 21 Feb 2021 16.04 EST

Gareth Southgate seems to have a season ticket for Leicester City games home and away and who can blame him? The England manager witnessed James Maddison and Harvey Barnes score yet again as Brendan Rodgers’ team cemented their place in the Champions League qualification spots.

With a six-point advantage over fifth-placed Chelsea in the Premier League, Leicester look to be in control of their own fate as they deservedly stretched their run to one defeat in 16 games in all competitions.

Home victories over Slavia Prague, this week, and Manchester United, next month, would see them into the latter stages of both the Europa League and the FA Cup but it is Leicester’s consistency in the Premier League which stands out.

The question in advance was how Aston Villa would cope without the injured Jack Grealish, missing for the first time in 49 Premier League games and 15 months. The answer appeared to be delivered inside 23 minutes: not very well at all.

By that stage, Leicester were more in control than the 2-0 scoreline indicates and Villa struggle when conceding, let alone when lacking their talisman. In a generally very good season in which they have already posted their best clean-sheets record for a Premier League season, Dean Smith’s team have lost nine of the 11 games in which the opposition have scored.

Leicester may be playing with inordinate frequency but, even with injuries testing their squad depth, they have such a head of steam that it appeared to be ‘game over’ by the time Maddison and Barnes had scored midway through the first half.

With the fit-again Timothy Castagne and Ricardo Pereira both featuring on the right flank, perhaps in anticipation of countering Grealish, Leicester were solid when they needed to be after the break and exhilarating when taking control. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while,” Rodgers said. “This is the first time the boys have both been fit.”

With Anwar El Ghazi understandably not exerting the same influence as Grealish, Pereira was able to enjoy himself going forwards as much as anyone in the first half, with one powerful shot deflecting just over and another superbly saved by Emiliano Martínez either side of the two goals.

There was no surprise over the identity of Leicester’s marksmen, nor that Southgate should be here monitoring their sustained and classy progress. Maddison, receiving Barnes’ square pass, was granted all the time he needed to guide a shot from 20 yards low in off a post after Leicester had calmly played their way out of defence before Youri Tielemans’ long pass towards Jamie Vardy fell for Barnes. That was the ninth goal Maddison has either scored or assisted in the last 10 league games.

James Maddison scores Leicester’s first goal.
James Maddison scores Leicester’s first goal. Photograph: Michael Regan/Reuters

Within four minutes, Leicester had doubled their advantage. There was too big a gap in the middle of Villa’s central midfield, with Ross Barkley still struggling to impose himself, and Tielemans poked a pass out towards Barnes.

The ball fell for Vardy to shoot from 20 yards, and although Martínez did well to parry, Barnes shot the rebound high into the net for his 13th goal of the season. “When he’s in full flow, there’s not many better,” Rodgers said. “And he’s only going to get better. He’s a joy to watch.”

To Villa’s credit, they dominated the second half, triggered by Bertrand Traoré’s goal within three minute of the restart when he finished from six yards out after Matt Targett’s cross eluded John McGinn at the near post.

Leicester tired markedly as Villa, having enjoyed a free midweek, applied concerted pressure without threatening an equaliser, Tyrone Mings heading wide in stoppage time from their best late chance. Maddison, requiring treatment for a hip injury, limped off but he had already inflicted his own damage on Villa.

Smith preferred not to specify whether Grealish’s injury related to thigh or shin but did confirm it is not expected to be long term and that his captain could return at Leeds this Saturday.

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