The prospect of a title race remains firmly in the balance. Presented with a chance to capitalise on Liverpool’s slip against West Brom, Leicester failed to shake off the stage fright. Although a late equaliser from Harvey Barnes lifted them into second place, Leicester’s tentativeness in attack against cautious opponents hardly suggested that they are equipped to reel in the champions.
In the end the gap to Liverpool stood at three points when it should have been one. Leicester were wasteful in front of goal, with Kelechi Iheanacho seeing a penalty saved in the first half, and ended up grateful to Barnes for denying Palace, who are winless in five games.
The demands of the festive schedule threatened to work against Leicester at first, robbing them of a decisive edge in attack. A situation that required Brendan Rodgers to make seven changes to the side that drew with Manchester United on Saturday felt deeply unsatisfactory, hammering home the absurdity of asking elite athletes to play twice in the space of 48 hours, especially during such a weird and draining season.
If anyone benefited, though, perhaps it was the Palace defenders who were spared the task of keeping up with Jamie Vardy during the opening period. With Rodgers determined to keep his team fresh, several of Leicester’s top players either started on the bench or were unavailable. Timothy Castagne, Wesley Fofana and James Maddison were given the day off, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi stepped out of midfield and there was a damaging lack of ruthlessness in an attack led by Iheanacho, whose barren run continued when Vicente Guaita saved his early penalty.
In normal circumstances it would have been Vardy stepping up to give Leicester a 17th-minute lead once James Tomkins had erred with a clumsy foul on Luke Thomas, who had caught Palace napping with a breathtaking surge from left-back. With Leicester’s leading scorer on the bench, however, spot-kick duties fell to a forward without a goal in the league this season.
Up stepped Iheanacho, angling his run towards the ball in a way that betrayed his intentions. The Nigerian looked tentative and it was unsurprising to see him place his effort at a decent height for Guaita, who got a strong hand to the ball after guessing correctly and diving to his left.
There would be more profligacy from Iheanacho when he headed over from four yards out after a firm cross from Dennis Praet. Wastefulness was ruining Leicester’s composed approach play. When Ayoze Pérez saw a deflected cross bounce off the bar, Praet fired over in a rush.
Palace had also made changes, although perhaps that owed more to Roy Hodgson needing to shake his side up after a worrying dip. Thumped 7-0 by Liverpool in their previous home game, they were awful when they lost 3-0 to 10-man Aston Villa on Saturday. Low on confidence, they were content to sit back and absorb pressure, although they did have a couple of openings before the interval. Andros Townsend wasted the best of them, steering Jeffrey Schlupp’s cutback wide.
There was more intensity from Palace at the start of the second half. Zaha had struggled during the opening period, giving the ball away too cheaply, but he remained the likeliest player to hurt Leicester. It was a different game once he started to find space to turn and dribble.
The first warning for Leicester came when Schlupp cut inside before finding Zaha, who sidefooted over in a rush. Rodgers sensed danger, bringing on Tielemans, but Palace were starting to fancy their chances. After 58 minutes Zaha dropped deep to receive possession, turned cleverly and spread found Townsend on the right. Rather than stand back and admire his pass, he kept moving. Townsend had space to whip in a left-footed inswinger and Zaha was rewarded for gambling, ghosting to the far post unnoticed, perfectly placed to meet the cross with a volley that flew past Kasper Schmeichel.
Palace were in their favourite position: 1-0 up, able to sink back, stifle and play on the break. Leicester’s threat had faded. Once so composed in possession, suddenly they found themselves being hassled and harried by Jaïro Riedewald and Luka Milivojevic in midfield. Palace were defending with ferocious commitment, summed up by Tomkins thundering into a challenge on Barnes on the left.
Yet Barnes was ready to accept responsibility. Leicester made changes, introducing Vardy and Demarai Gray, but it was Barnes who seized the initiative, jinking into space before firing in the equaliser from 18 yards with seven minutes left. Leicester chased a winner but their best chance went when Pérez fired over.
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