Leicester are out of sorts and will soon be out of the Europa League if they do not get back their mojo. Mahir Emreli’s winning goal for Legia Warsaw leaves Brendan Rodgers’ side with one point from their first two matches in Group C and plenty more questions about how to regain the level of performance, both on their travels and domestically, that had earned them a ticket to Europe in the first place.
“I’m disappointed with the result,” said Rodgers. “We were too passive in the first half. Then we had a couple of really good chances. We didn’t concede too much, we dominated the second half and were much more active. We had opportunities to get something from the game.
“I’ve made the changes but it doesn’t take away the importance from it. We have four more games to qualify. As a football club, we’re new to the level.”
There were signs even before kick-off that this trip would not go as planned by Leicester, as Kelechi Iheanacho was denied entry into Poland because of a problem with his documentation. Rodgers said the Nigerian striker would have started otherwise, as would Jonny Evans, who missed out through illness. The suspended Wilfred Ndidi was another significant absentee. Nonetheless, Rodgers had plenty of options and it was encouraging that he chose to deploy a back three for the first time this season as he looked for a solution to his team’s recent defensive brittleness.
However, the new configuration malfunctioned, especially early on, and the disturbing thing is that seemed to be down to the personnel. Leicester have made a nasty habit of starting matches slowly this season and they were guilty again in Warsaw. The whole team looked oddly sluggish, passing slowly and moving with about as much verve and unpredictability as a baggage carousel. Whereas Legia attacked the game as if contesting a cup final, some Leicester players looked as if it was the last thing on their minds.
The hosts were quick to expose slackness on the left-hand side of Leicester’s defence, in particular, with Caglar Soyuncu and Luke Thomas caught napping several times early on. Mattias Johansson might have punished them after only two minutes if not for an important block by Daniel Amartey.
Johansson raced past Soyuncu again four minutes later before cutting the ball back to André Martins, whose shot from 20 yards did not have the power to trouble Kasper Schmeichel. Leicester had been hoping to test the mettle of the goalkeeper at the other end, where the inexperienced 19-year-old Cezary Miszta was making a rare appearance because of injury to Legia’s No 1, Artur Boruc. But the visitors exerted little pressure on him. When they did so, Miszta was found wanting, failing to punch away an inswinging corner by Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, but Ayoze Pérez could not adjust his feet quickly enough to tap the ball into the net from four yards, instead allowing it to bounce off him to safety.
Pérez did better when he spotted a smart run by Patson Daka and clipped the ball into his path but the Zambian stabbed wide with his left foot from 16 yards. Those were paltry highlights. Most of Leicester’s first half made for uncomfortable viewing for Rodgers, whose team passed sloppily and looked bereft of ideas and intensity.
Those shortcomings contributed to Legia’s goal just after the half-hour. When Josué pinged a pass in to Emreli at the edge of the area, the striker held off Amartey with embarrassing ease and then fired a low shot through the legs of Jannik Vestergaard and across Schmeichel, who watched it bounce off the far post and into the net.
Emreli was not the only Legia player to seem stronger, smarter and more driven than the visitors. Bartosz Slisz tried to present him with another chance five minutes later after nicking the ball off Vestergaard but the cross was a fraction too high.
As half-time approached Leicester finally livened up but Pérez wasted the only clear chance they created, dragging wide from 18 yards. Rodgers’ side established territorial control from the start of the second period but struggled to infiltrate Legia, who were content to coil back and await opportunities to counterattack. Even when Vestergaard made a storming run to get on the end of a corner, in the 66th minute, precision eluded the defender. who met the ball four yards out with his shoulder rather than his head, enabling Miszta to make a save.
Similarly Daka mis-hit a shot when given a chance three minutes later. By that time Rodgers had cast on James Maddison and Harvey Barnes in a bid to stimulate his team. Ademola Lookman joined the action for the last quarter of an hour as Leicester changed their system, then Jamie Vardy was dispatched on a rescue mission. But instead Legia nearly doubled their lead, with Schmeichel thwarting Lirim Kastrati with a brilliant save before Tomas Pekhart lifted a shot over the bar from 10 yards after another rapid counterattack.
Despite the result, Rodgers insisted that Leicester could still qualify from their group. “It’s very open, there are four games to go,” he said. “Legia have made a good start but our aim is to qualify. We still have work to do. We’ve got one point from two games but there is enough time to do that.”