For the first 75 minutes, this looked like being Leicester’s 2021/22 season in microcosm. For the remaining 15 minutes, it was a return to the Leicester miracles of the last six years.
It has been a deeply frustrating season at the King Power. After successive Champions League near-misses they have slipped into mid-table. They have suffered hugely debilitating injury problems. They have far too often been their own worst enemies. But this come-from-behind victory at PSV puts them in a European semi-final and gives them every chance of adding yet another chapter to the Foxes’ absurd recent history. And across the 180 minutes – and certainly these 90 – they fully deserved it.
They were so close to crashing out, though, thanks to a goal that could only have been more Leicester 2021/22 if someone had twanged a hammy in the process. Youri Tielemans is an excellent player but his slack error that led to the PSV opener is the sort of thing that is just starting to show worrying signs of entering “yet another uncharacteristic error” territory. He did the same thing in the second half and was lucky to get away with it. He could have scuppered the comeback before it began.
But in an adventurous second half, boosted by the half-time introductions of Patson Daka and Ademola Lookman, Leicester created a string of chances before finally taking two of them. And fine, well-worked goals they were too. A third substitute, Ayoze Perez, also made a huge difference to the threat of Leicester’s frequent attacks and it was his cutback that James Maddison fired into the roof of the net. It was a tough blow for a PSV side who had gone fully on the defensive and it always felt like a one-brings-two situation.
The second goal was even better worked even if it needed right-back Ricardo Pereira to apply the finishing touch after a fine save from Yvon Mvogo to deny Daka.
Leicester closed the game out nervelessly from there, and this was a game – and those last 20-odd minutes especially – that reminded you just how good Brendan Rodgers’ side can be when things fall in their favour rather than against them.
The biggest thing to fall Leicester’s way, of course, is the very existence of this competition. In previous years, their chaotic and unconvincing group-stage performance in the Europa League would have ended their continental involvement before Christmas. But while this may ‘only’ be the Europa Conference, this was a worthy addition to what is already a vintage midweek of European knockout action. Even in the third-tier competition, this was a reminder that two-legged European football remains an intoxicating brew in the latter stages.
This was also a good night for the decision to abolish away goals. I’m still not quite sure where I sit on it. It made for some absurd drama, and it’s capacity to turn defeat into victory with a single goal was certainly a powerful weapon. But I’ve always felt it was also too powerful. Too artificial. There isn’t anything inherently superior about an away goal and it all felt a bit of a contrivance of the sort better left to other, lesser sports. So compelling, though. In the end, after giving it more thought than necessary, the splintered-arse fence-sitting position I settled on was this: it was a silly rule that made no real sporting sense and they were wrong to introduce it, but having done so they were also wrong to get rid of it. Logical? Absolutely not, but then neither was the rule.
This felt like exactly the sort of situation it was scrapped for, though. Leicester were demonstrably a better side than PSV but the scoreline didn’t say that. Whether Rodgers would have done so is a different matter, but the equaliser would, in previous years, have been enough to be a winner and could have prompted Leicester to sit back. Instead, having gained the momentum in the tie they roared on for a winner that they merited and got. It was an altogether more satisfactory way for the tie to finish as Leicester celebrated an outright winner.
They have an excellent chance on this evidence to turn a first European semi-final into a first European trophy. They should certainly be in ‘fear nobody’ territory in any case.
With their attacking players looking so good here tonight and Jamie Vardy closing on a return they can bother anyone. With Wesley Fofana back and as magnificent as he was here, they can shut out anyone if those infuriating individual mistakes can be eradicated.
Fofana is crucial in more ways than one, actually. He was so good here that it was impossible not to wonder how different Leicester’s league season might have looked had he not missed so much of it. He is going to be an elite centre-back, and arguably already is. That stuttering mid-table league position is a kind of blessing now, though. There are a possible three games left that matter in Leicester’s season, three games that can put it in club legend alongside 2015/16 and 2020/21.
Leicester can and should soft-pedal their way home in the league now. History beckons in UEFA’s newest competition.