There was finally some respite for Claudio Ranieri at the end of a bitterly cold evening that had threatened to bring more doom and gloom to Leicester City’s season. Staring at the prospect of a third successive defeat and elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of their Championship neighbours, Leicester salvaged a draw when Wes Morgan headed home four minutes from time.
It was a captain’s goal in every sense, crucial in the context of this tie and vital in terms of the relief it provided to a team that are badly in need of an injection of confidence. Racking up 40 points in the Premier League is the priority, yet it would have been a bitter blow to Leicester’s fragile self-belief if they were to find themselves travelling to Burnley on Tuesday on the back of defeat here.
Steve McClaren was probably right when he said that neither manager wanted a replay, but Ranieri was quick to make the point that negotiating another fixture was a far more welcome outcome than the one that Leicester were looking at before Morgan intervened. “It would have been more stressful to lose tonight,” Leicester’s manager said.
Although Leicester’s equaliser arrived late, it was no more than the Premier League side deserved after dominating the second half in a lively and entertaining Cup tie. The frustration for Derby County will be that they came so close to seeing the game out on an evening when Darren Bent extended his remarkable FA Cup goalscoring record in the strangest of circumstances.
Bent scored at both ends, taking his tally to 11 in as many FA Cup ties, with the former England international’s farcical own goal sure to be replayed over and over again. To Bent’s credit, he quickly atoned with a fine glancing header at the other end and when Craig Bryson drilled in a second, via a slight deflection off Robert Huth, the stage was set for a famous Derby victory.
Leicester, though, were a different proposition after the interval, aided by the introduction of Demarai Gray, as they cranked up the pressure. “It’s important for our confidence,” Ranieri said, reflecting on the way Leicester fought back. “I am very happy with our attitude and our character. When we show this character anything can happen.”
Derby will also take plenty of encouragement from their performance. Will Hughes showed some lovely touches in the centre of the Derby midfield before being forced to leave the pitch in the second half with a hamstring injury and Scott Carson showed why he believes that he is playing the best football of his career with a number of excellent saves.
“We did everything we could,” McClaren, Derby’s manager, said. “We came across a team who were at it tonight. Our character was fantastic, we dug in in the second half and Scott Carson made some saves when we needed him to. I’m disappointed we didn’t win but I thought it was a cracking game.”
Derby got off to a horrible start when they conceded in such bizarre fashion. Everything stemmed from a Marc Albrighton corner that Huth met with one of those towering headers. The ball cannoned off Chris Baird, Derby’s right-back, and Bent, with no Leicester player close to him, had the seemingly straightforward task of clearing off the line. Instead Bent panicked, thrashed wildly at the ball with his left boot and ended up horribly slicing it into his own net. The sight of Bent scratching his head afterwards, with a bemused look on his face, rather summed it up. “I think for a second he thought he was at the other end,” McClaren said.
Perhaps that incident was playing on Bent’s mind 13 minutes later when he climbed above Ben Chilwell to meet Hughes’s perfectly flighted cross with a header that drifted into the far corner of the net. The game was wide open at that stage and Leicester came close to restoring their advantage moments later when Shinji Okazaki thumped a rising 20-yard shot that Carson brilliantly tipped over the bar. Derby, though, were beginning to play with more confidence and snatched the lead when Bryson capitalised on Danny Simpson’s poor header, accelerated into the space that opened up in the inside left channel and beat Schmeichel.
Chasing the game, Leicester laid siege to the Derby goal early in the second half. Carson smothered Gray’s close-range shot, then the Derby keeper breathed a sigh of relief when another attempt from the substitute hit the far post. Okazaki still looked certain to turn in the rebound but Bradley Johnson blocked the forward’s shot before Carson, once again in the right place at the right time, made an instinctive save.
When Jamie Vardy later headed straight at Carson it looked like it was not going to be Leicester’s night, but Morgan’s header from Gray’s corner pegged Derby back. There was still time for a late penalty appeal, but Mark Clattenburg was probably right to allow play to go on when the ball struck Huth on the hand after ricocheting off his thigh. “I’ve seen them given but we didn’t get the luck,” McClaren said.
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