The first goalless draw of this extraordinary season was looming like an obnoxious guest when Ross Barkley seized his moment. After collecting a pass from John McGinn midway inside the Leicester half in the first minute of stoppage time, Aston Villa’s on-loan Chelsea midfielder strode forward and rifled a low shot into the bottom corner of the net. And with that, Villa had won their opening four matches of a campaign for the first time since 1930 and climbed to second in the Premier League.
Leicester know better than anyone that a team can win the title one season after narrowly escaping relegation. It would be ludicrous to start talking to Villa about such notions just yet but there is no doubt that Dean Smith’s side have made huge progress since being thrashed here 4-0 in March. Attracting players such as Barkley has been part of that improvement.
Leicester dealt with him and his teammates with far more rigour than Liverpool managed to do two weeks ago but Villa now have so much creative talent, on top of a solidified defence, that it is a cursed job trying to suppress them entirely. And they know it. “You could hear Jack Grealish in the 89th minute shouting at the goalkeeper [to kick the ball out quickly], saying: ‘Come on, let’s get the win,” said Smith, justifiably proud of his side’s confidence and ambition.
In what must have been one of the easiest team selections of his managerial career, Smith opted to start with the same side that inflicted that vibrant, outrageous 7-2 defeat on Liverpool two weeks ago. But Leicester, though depleted by injuries, did well to negate them for long periods, especially in the first half, when the hosts even carried vague menace of their own on the counterattack despite being deprived of Jamie Vardy by a calf injury.
Leicester’s top scorer was not their only absentee, as the centre-back Caglar Soyuncu was ruled out, in addition to Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira. Rather than turn to the veteran Wes Morgan, Brendan Rodgers decided to give a Premier League debut to Wesley Fofana, the 19-year-old centre-back bought from Saint-Étienne this month for more than £30m. Even an exceptional teenager might have gulped at being asked to start his career in England by subduing an attack that had just fired seven goals past the champions. But the newcomer showed no signs of culture shock, even though his first involvement was to peel himself off the ground in the third minute after catching a mouthful of Ollie Watkins’ right arm in an aerial challenge.
That incident aside, Fofana looked comfortable as Leicester allowed Villa to have the ball in innocuous areas before trying to pinch if off them and spring forward. They were the more dangerous side in the first half.
Emi Martínez was the first goalkeeper to be forced into meaningful action, although Ayoze Pérez’s gentle shot from 25 yards did not inconvenience him much. But Martínez was certainly bothered in the 21st minute when Leicester raced forward on the break. Kelechi Iheanacho played a smart pass through to Timothy Castagne, whose powerful shot from a tight angle was beaten away.
The visitors did not threaten until the 26th minute, when McGinn ran on to a pass by Grealish and rasped a shot wide from 10 yards under pressure from James Justin. Villa’s attackers seldom got time or space on the ball.
Matty Cash rescued Villa with a fine tackle in the box on Castagne just after the half-hour but embarrassed himself, and earned a booking, a few minutes later by dragging down Harvey Barnes in desperation after misjudging a bouncing ball on the wing.
Villa improved after the interval and began to stretch Leicester. Grealish’s patience neared breaking point as he was repeatedly fouled but, as ever, he never quit trying to incite a breakthrough with his skill. A nicely delivered corner in the 55th minute invited Ezri Konsa to open the scoring but the defender’s header flew wide.
Leicester’s visits into opposing territory were growing rare but Youri Tielemans almost made one count on the hour with a shot from 20 yards. Martínez saved it despite a troublesome deflection off Tyrone Mings. Still, Leicester needed more inspiration. Rodgers introduced James Maddison
but the midfielder’s ingenuity remained dormant, just as Barkley’s had done for most of the match.
Barkley and Villa, though, were not willing to let the contest trundle to a draw. “We needed a little bit of quality to win the game and Ross showed that,” said Smith.