Guardiola’s solution to the absence of injured Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus was to line up Raheem Sterling as a nominal No.9 who needed to be fluid in positioning. From the league’s victory over Burnley last week, Brendan Rodgers was without Wilfred Ndidi (kidnapper issue), with manager dropping Ayoze Pérez as Daniel Amartey and Jonny Evans.From the kick-off, a pattern of City attacking Leicester’s defense began until the break. This had Rodgers’ men packing a five-man rearguard and a four-man midfielder, with Vardy the only outlet. Four minutes was enough for it to appear too passive.
A corner from Kevin De Bruyne from the left was inadvertently directed by James Justin on the way to Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian placed the laces of his right boot through the ball for a strike that propelled Kasper Schmeichel.
Despite the blow, the Foxes retained their form and a strategy that hinged on a quick breakthrough of, say, Harvey Barnes hitting a pass behind City’s high line for either Vardy or AN Other to quickly break up. This is how No 15 stroked a ball along the left – to Justin, but the winger didn’t have the wheels to get past Kyle Walker, who eliminated the danger.
Despite a long list of absentees led by Agüero and Jesus, City were at this point a robust unit that had their opponents where they wanted them to be. After a few slow carousel passes involving Nathan Aké and Eric García, suddenly De Bruyne tapped a pass to Mahrez and his release spun Sterling and shoot straight at Schmeichel.
Leicester, however, had to show a hard core. A first glimmer was a corner claimed by Barnes’ push, García returning the ball. Tielemans brought this short to Justin but his delivery was picked up by Ederson.
A free kick from De Bruyne was much more precise: it was placed for Fernandinho to steer but it missed – badly. City were exposed when a counterattack left them behind, with the ball crossing the area towards Justin although, again, No 2’s intended pass was misdirected. De Bruyne was floating on the pitch to take intelligent positions, an area of his game that makes him so threatening. Suddenly he was a right winger, clinging to Walker’s serve, slipping a cross that Daniel Amartey scrambled to clear.
Yet at halftime Rodgers’ game plan was in bad shape because of City – via Walker – getting hit by suction cups. Here, the right-back allowed Vardy to get on the wrong side in the area and therefore pulled him down. Michael Oliver, the referee, pointed to the spot and Vardy crashed at the house.
Another relief for Leicester came in another break with an over-the-top pass that forced García to win a run with Barnes. He did, but when the second half started City had questions to answer. One of the main reasons was why the two-player midfielder system including Fernandinho and Rodri was still not able to stem the Foxes’ main fastball ploy, whether aerial or low.
Maybe deciding that made the XI too static, just five minutes had passed when Fernandinho was replaced by Liam Delap, the 17-year-old making his league debut. Instantly it appeared to be a wrong move from Guardiola as Leicester took the lead. It was via a quick streak in which Tielemans fed Timothy Castagne on the right.
Now came the magic of Vardy, the irrepressible center forward defeating Ederson with a back heel. If it was Leicester well, things improved moments later. Vardy, again, was the key. This time a flurry knocked García down and Oliver – correctly – awarded a second penalty. Vardy stroked this to Ederson’s left and it was 3-1 for the visitors.
City’s retaliation was a Benjamin Mendy cross that Delap walked over to the bar. Still, what unfolded was a home team clumsy to the touch and too frenzied on the attack. A De Bruyne balloon which crushed Sterling was crushed.
Ferran Torres, as a substitute, racked a cross in the seats behind the goals. Walker shot a pass on goal and neither Delap, Sterling nor anyone else had the instinct to connect. While Aké caught a second for City, it was only consolation. More prescient is how this setback poses a serious question about a credible title challenge on their part.