Leicester reached the FA Cup final for the first time since 1969 thanks to a goal from their man of the moment, Kelechi Iheanacho. The Nigerian, already the best African scorer in tournament history, continued his recent glowing form by striking in the second half to set up a showdown with Chelsea.
It wasn’t Leicester’s smoothest performance under Brendan Rodgers but they were without a doubt the better team and the way they got the result answered some questions about their ability to get the job done under pressure. Now Rodgers and his team will have the opportunity to lift the FA Cup for the first time in their club’s history.
In addition to a sports competition, it was a social and scientific experiment. Four thousand fans have been cleared into Wembley for the first time in over a year, with the match being chosen as the pilot event to help prepare for the return to full stadiums. Masked spectators, any local residents or key workers scattered around the lowest level had to undergo Covid-19 tests and observe various safety procedures. The government hopes the event will prove to be informative as it tries to deliver on its pledge to allow stadiums to be filled to at least 25% of capacity for this summer’s European Championship and allow 22,000 fans to attend the FA Cup final.
The first unscientific discovery was that the presence of excited real-life humans made the heart glad and made the show more important. Even before kick-off, when the crowd cheered the players by taking a knee, the sound of real people was a reminder of the shortcomings of canned impostors.
One problem with people, however, is that they can suffer from stage fright. Players on both sides seemed edgy from the start here. The deceptive passes and the general hesitation made for a heavy and sloppy first period. How different could it have been if Ayoze Pérez could have scored in the fifth minute after a nice pass from Youri Tielemans, but instead the Spaniard shot over the bar from the left of the box of repair.
Pérez, back on the team after being fired last week for hosting an illicit party, was selected before one of his guests, James Maddison. It was justified on the basis of recent form, but the Spaniard didn’t have much of an impact.
Southampton were cautious, working hard to deny pass options in the opposing half. They didn’t threaten until Moussa Djenepo played a raked pass from top to bottom for Danny Ings to chase after him, but Kasper Schmeichel left his zone to clear.
Jamie Vardy and Iheanacho, such a dangerous duo in recent weeks, could not combine until the 23rd minute. Under pressure from Jannik Vestergaard, Vardy missed his shot by 20 yards. The forward might have had a better chance three minutes later, but Pérez botched a simple pass. Then, at the other end, Ings rushed to the edge of the box with the ball at his feet but delayed his shot, allowing Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira to dispossess him. The effort of the players was not lacking but too many of them lacked their usual sharpness.
Vardy, who entered the game after scoring just one goal since Christmas, had the chance to show off his power in the 33rd minute but, after leaving Jan Bednarek in his wake, he ran for another nice pass from Tielemans but escaped. his shot above the seven-meter bar.
Leicester caused more panic in Southampton’s box just before half-time with a series of turns as Ndidi and Vardy narrowly missed the mark with headers. But, overall, the goalless scoresheet was a faithful reflection of a scruffy first period.
Leicester summoned more intensity in the second half and began to punch more holes in the opposing defense. They forced the breakthrough in the 55th minute, when Vardy once again demonstrated why he was so valuable even though he wasn’t scoring. The 34-year-old turned nimbly past Bednarek on the left wing, then took to the skies before looking up and choosing his loyal partner. Iheanacho, having cleverly dodged his marker, misdirected his first shot, but it rebounded towards him off Vestergaard, and the forward coolly stroked his follow-through effort into the eight-yard net.
Now Southampton had to take more risks in attacking. They waved Leicester and thought they should have received a penalty when Djenepo’s cross hit Wesley Fofana’s arm, but the referee disagreed. Next, Jonny Evans blocked a shot from Che Adams before Ibrahima Diallo took a shot from 25 yards. The Frenchman came very close with an elegant attempt moments later, his volley from the edge of the area whistling a few inches.
Above all, however, Leicester handled Southampton’s attacks comfortably. Maddison could have given them some real peace of mind shortly after replacing Pérez, but he lifted a shot above the 20-yard bar after some smart work from Iheanacho. Three minutes later, Maddison attempted to atone even further, but his well-hitting shot shot out in the distance.
It didn’t matter, as Leicester kept their opponents on the sidelines with an authority that will cheer them on for a potentially glorious final of their season.