At the final whistle, rather aptly, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing boomed from the stadium speakers. Ten-man Southampton had survived but, while Leicester City averted disaster after rallying to a point, this unmistakably represented a golden opportunity missed in the battle to qualify for the Champions League.
The game descended into a chaotic conclusion as Leicester, buoyed by Jonny Evans’ headed equaliser, hunted a late winner but a spirited Southampton stood firm. With four games to play, Leicester have an eight-point advantage over fifth-placed West Ham, one of a clutch of teams chasing the top four.
It was this time last season that things started to unravel but Brendan Rodgers was reluctant to be too downbeat and pointed towards the positives with games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur still to come. “We are only looking up,” Rodgers said. “It’s another point towards where we want to go. We have four exciting games, and a [FA] Cup final. It’s a really exciting time for us. Everything is in our hands and that’s all you ever want.”
Ralph Hasenhüttl must have felt a sense of déja vu when, after 10 minutes, Jannik Vestergaard was given a straight red card. It was this fixture last season, also played under the lights on a Friday, that brought Leicester’s infamous record-breaking 9-0 win but that night it was Ryan Bertrand’s sending-off that proved the catalyst for Southampton’s capitulation. They again had to strap in but they did not panic, even if the red card rankled. “The official explanation was it was a clear denial of a goalscoring opportunity,” said Hasenhüttl, who confirmed Southampton would appeal the decision. “This explanation is simply wrong. I’m not delighted by the red card decision but delighted by the performance of my fighting side.”
The agonising thing for Hasenhüttl was that his team should have taken an early lead but Nathan Tella fluffed his lines after being picked out by the selfless Che Adams, who pressured Caglar Soyuncu into trouble. Hasenhüttl despaired as Tella’s right-footed shot bobbled into the grasp of the Leicester captain Kasper Schmeichel. Moments earlier, the Leicester wing-back Luke Thomas expertly intervened as Southampton countered.
Vestergaard took a heavy touch in defence and, as the last man, scrambled to prevent Jamie Vardy from bearing down on Alex McCarthy, again preferred in the Southampton goal. He won the ball but the follow-through saw him inadvertently clatter Vardy’s left ankle inside the D. The VAR Jonathan Moss took a dim view and the referee Robert Jones’s decision stood. James Maddison sent the resulting free-kick dipping wide of a post.
Leicester saw plenty of the ball but struggled to penetrate Southampton despite their man advantage and with Rodgers recognising the need to ask more questions, Wesley Fofana was withdrawn at the interval and later Marc Albrighton arrived in place of Thomas. But they had to come from behind after Kelechi Iheanacho raised both arms at Stuart Armstrong’s searing strike inside the box. James Ward-Prowse dispatched the subsequent spot-kick with minimal fuss.
“We didn’t really pick up the tempo of the game until we went a goal behind,” rued Rodgers. “Normally, we can take advantage of it but our game was too slow. We took off the defenders to try and get that attacking impetus into the game. We arrived into some really good positions but we didn’t quite have the precision on the final pass or final phase. When we get back in again on Monday, it’s another point towards where we want to go. We’re in a brilliant position. Our fourth game in 13 days probably meant we were just a fraction out of the speed of our game.”
Southampton had a lead to cherish but no wonder Leicester’s heads did not drop: Southampton have dropped a league-high 23 points from winning positions this season. Wilfred Ndidi weaved his way towards the box before finding Iheanacho, whose delicious cross was headed in by Evans. “Don’t give up on anything,” roared Schmeichel, and back came Leicester. Maddison slid in Vardy and then Vardy went it alone but the suffering was not over. Vardy nudged the ball into the path of Ndidi on the edge of the box but he drilled wide. Hamza Choudhury squealed in disbelief among the substitutes and then a flapping McCarthy almost helped Iheanacho to a winner. But in the end Leicester were left to rue what might have been.
“Everyone was putting blocks in left, right, and centre,” said McCarthy. “The mentality of everyone defending was top drawer. That’s what we want to see every week. It’s so tough when you go one man down but we have that grit and determination. We wanted a result so badly.”